Let’s get one thing clear: Edward Snowden didn’t personally dump a trove of national security secrets online. He contacted journalists at The Washington Post and The Guardian with his stolen information and urged them to publish where appropriate to serve the public interest. In other words, he trusted the free press, including the newspaper that broke the Watergate story, to serve as a check on metadata collection and other government mass surveillance programs. Snowden’s actions catalyzed a global debate on electronic privacy, ultimately performing a tremendous and unique public service — President Obama should offer Snowden a pardon.
Not so fast, critics say. Couldn’t Snowden have just raised his concerns internally? Timothy Edgar, the former director of privacy and civil liberties for the White House National Security Staff, offers some perspective. In a post on the national security blog Lawfare, Edgar writes of his internal review work to safeguard civil liberties and privacy protections:
“While I am proud of the work we did, it is fair to say that until Snowden stole a trove of top secret documents and gave them to reporters in 2013, we had limited success. It took a Snowden to spark meaningful change.”
In December 2013, a federal judge ruled that the NSA’s bulk metadata collection was unconstitutional. It’s hard to see how such a program would have been dragged into the sunlight without someone like Snowden alerting the media. How many organizations have finally made long-needed changes only after public pressure?
From Sonia Sotomayor to Rand Paul to Snowden’s lawyer, ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, advocates have rallied to defend the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure as it pertains to electronic surveillance. In a 2015 interview, Wizner described how these protections were originally created in response to British general warrants that could “grab documents without suspicion, look through them to find things that were seditious, and then bring charges and punishment against people.” If there’s any question about the Fourth Amendment’s modern relevance, just replace “documents” with “metadata” or “e-mail.”
Snowden’s alert to the Post and the Guardian about shady government surveillance programs resulted in both those publications sharing a Pulitzer Prize, in 2014, for public service. The intelligence community responded to privacy and transparency concerns, ultimately changing how personal data is shared and protected online — ever more important as citizens’ private lives are increasingly converted to public data. And Snowden? Rather than welcomed home to the land of the free, he remains a guest of Vladimir Putin, one of the world’s most fierce and powerful enemies of the free press, personal liberty, and open societies everywhere.
Presidential pardons have gone to Eugene V. Debs, Richard Nixon, and James Michael Curley. George Washington issued the first presidential pardon to rebels who fought against the government during the Whiskey Rebellion. And Ronald Reagan pardoned W. Mark Felt. Obama should do the same for Edward Snowden.Nick Osborne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.