I recently watched Oliver Stone’s movie about Edward Snowden (starring Joseph Gordon Leavitt) on a flight back from Europe. Normally, I’m not a big fan of Oliver Stone because he takes such broad liberties with his “true” source material, but the film was interesting and compelling, less heavy handed than Stone’s other “based on a true story” with a conspiracy theory bent films. I mean, if you’re going to do films based on conspiracy theories, you might as well pick an actual conspiracy, which is what he did in this case. Obviously, his film implies that Snowden is a laudable patriot, and we should never have sex in the same room as our cell phone or laptop because weirdos in the government are watching.
I remember when Snowden went public with his information about NSA surveillance of American citizens using Google and AT&T in Hong Kong in 2013. It was a big global news story. I was living in Singapore at the time, a country which doesn’t espouse the same freedom of speech we do in the US. Although it’s a very western-friendly nation, full freedom of the press often has a negative impact on the economy which is why Singapore controls the media more closely than we do. It’s one reason I still read the Straits Times on a regular basis as a counterpoint to the other global news I read. In Singapore, Snowden’s actions would definitely have been considered treason, and they do have a somewhat generously-applied death penalty.
The leaks caused a lot of people to reevaluate their online activities and caused a decrease in online purchases and emails; some became paranoid. But there were some who figured it didn’t matter because they had nothing to hide; they trusted the government not to use that information in ways that would hurt them. Like Kramer on Seinfeld, in the episode where he reverses his peephole, they said “Let em look!” How we feel about being spied on probably depends a lot on how we view our leaders and whether or not we think they are trustworthy.
Aside from that, our belief in our online privacy is overblown. In an episode of Adam Ruins Everything about the internet, host Adam discusses that because we wanted “free” online services, the result was that the internet was designed to gather information about us through our activities (using “cookies”) and then to use that information to sell us products and services. As his episode points out: we’re not the consumers; we’re the product.
In the US and other western countries, Snowden’s actions were viewed by many citizens, politicians and journalists as heroic, shining a light on the government’s illegal, unwarranted and secretive overreach into the private lives of citizens. Snowden views himself as a whistleblower, but because the government’s activities fall under the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), Snowden would not be tried in a public court by a jury of peers. Actions related to FISA mean that the government would try him in a “secret court,” and he could be executed for his actions. Several high ranking officials in the military and intelligence community are on record joking about executing him for treason. Since he blew the whistle on the government, it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to return to the US. He currently resides in Moscow, not his original destination, but a country he ended up in because the US cancelled his passport when he was en route from Hong Kong to South America. Russia has granted him asylum until 2020.
Both the New York Times and the Guardian have spoken in favor of a pardon for Snowden.
“When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.” January 2014, New York Times
The Guardian urges that Pres. Obama “use his executive powers to treat [Snowden] humanely and in a manner that would be a shining example about the value of whistleblowers and of free speech itself.” January 2014, Guardian.
Interestingly, the Washington Post broke ranks with other news outlets and stated that they did not feel Snowden should receive a pardon, even though the Post published his leaks and received a Pulitzer Prize for that work. Their view of Snowden’s leaks is that “it’s complicated.” While he leaked information about NSA domestic spying that spurred necessary reforms, he also leaked information about PRISM, an international surveillance program that was justified, and in so doing, he compromised our security programs.
He also pilfered, and leaked, information about a separate overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, that was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy. (It was also not permanent; the law authorizing it expires next year.) Worse — far worse — he also leaked details of basically defensible international intelligence operations: cooperation with Scandinavian services against Russia; spying on the wife of an Osama bin Laden associate; and certain offensive cyber operations in China. No specific harm, actual or attempted, to any individual American was ever shown to have resulted from the NSA telephone metadata program Mr. Snowden brought to light. In contrast, his revelations about the agency’s international operations disrupted lawful intelligence-gathering, causing possibly “tremendous damage” to national security, according to a unanimous, bipartisan report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. What higher cause did that serve?
In the film, it’s clear that Snowden was originally concerned about the surveillance under Pres. Bush, but he had hopes that Pres. Obama would dial back on those abuses. Instead, the surveillance greatly expanded under Obama, further disillusioning Snowden about government’s ability to curb its own power.
In response to Snowden’s leaks, President Obama stated:
“Our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.” Jan 2014
“The benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done, because there was another way of doing it.” Nov 2013
Other politicians have weighed in on Snowden’s predicament:
“Edward Snowden sacrificed his livelihood, citizenship, and freedom by exposing the disturbing scope of the NSA’s worldwide spying program. Thanks to one man’s courageous actions, Americans know about the truly egregious ways their government is spying on them.” Ron Paul, Feb 2014
“[W]e have all these protections for whistle-blowers. If he were concerned and wanted to be part of the American debate, he could have been…it struck me as…sort of odd that he would flee to China, because Hong Kong is controlled by China, and that he would then go to Russia—two countries with which we have very difficult cyberrelationships…turning over a lot of that material—intentionally or unintentionally—drained, gave all kinds of information, not only to big countries, but to networks and terrorist groups and the like. So I have a hard time thinking that somebody who is a champion of privacy and liberty has taken refuge in Russia, under Putin’s authority.” Hillary Clinton, Apr 2014
“The bottom line is this man has betrayed his country, sitting in Russia where he has taken refuge. You know, he should man up and come back to the United States.” John Kerry, May 2014
“[Snowden] clearly violated the law so you can’t say OK, what he did is all right. It’s not. But what he revealed in the course of violating important laws included violations of the U.S. constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed. In the course of violating important law, he also provided an important service. … Because we did need to know how far this has gone.” Al Gore, Jun 2014
“Love him or hate him, we all owe Snowden our thanks for forcing upon the nation an important debate. But the debate shouldn’t be about him. It should be about the gnawing questions his actions raised from the shadows.” Bernie Sanders, Jun 2013
Former President Jimmy Carter has stated that he would seriously consider pardoning Snowden if he were faced with that decision. But then again, he’s like one step away from Mr. Rogers. Guys in cardigans rarely use the death penalty in my experience.
Harshest of all in speaking about Snowden is current president, Donald Trump:
“I think he’s a total traitor and I would deal with him harshly. And if I were president, Putin would give him over.” July 2016
“Snowden is a spy who should be executed.” October 2013 (That was a tweet, natch)
Despite some rumors that surfaced a few weeks ago that Russia would give Snowden to Trump in order to curry favor with him, this doesn’t appear to be true. Snowden makes his case for a pardon here:
What about the future? Snowden is less concerned about Trump’s extension of the existing overreach than he is about the the FBI and Department of Justice specifically.
“NSA will be fine — until there’s something like another 9/11. Trump’s populism will then have little restraint to reshape it into a massively police state.” Security expert Robert Graham
Snowden agrees with Graham and warns us about a “turnkey tyranny,” where a new leader could “flip a switch” to allow itself huge surveillance power. The populace would be helpless to stop it.
So what do you think?
- Should Snowden go to prison (or even be executed) for treason because he compromised intelligence operations and broke the law? Or should be receive a pardon because of the importance of what he exposed about the domestic spying the government was doing?
- Should he be tried in a “secret court” because of the intelligence information that would be discussed in his trial or should he be tried by a jury of peers because his actions were to protect his fellow citizens?
- How do you feel about the government spying on its own citizens? Is it egregious overreach, a violation of our basic rights, or do you feel you have nothing to hide so who cares? Is there too great a risk for targeting individuals based on political or personal motives?
- Do you feel differently about this now that we have a new president in office? Is this too much power or is it a necessary evil to protect our freedoms?