Clemency for Edward Snowden: The New York Times & The Guardian Push Back
Edward Snowden is responsible for exposing approximately 1.7 million documents revealing the US Government’s surveillance program in which the NSA forced American technology companies to share private customer information (recurrently without warrants) and intercepted data from global phone and Internet networks (HP). Snowden now resides in Russia, evading charges of espionage and theft in the United States, and the possibility of life imprisonment.
On Wednesday, about two months after the US government rejected Snowden’s own clemency plea, the editorial boards of the New York Times as well as The Guardian published articles that urged the Obama Administration to offer Edward Snowden a form of clemency and referred to Snowden as a whistleblower. The New York Times wrote,
“It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.”
Since Snowden’s revelation, he not only has provoked national debate, but also has inspired legal and government action in the name of citizen privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union is now suing the NSA to provide details on the surveillance program and to stipulate the benefits this program provides US citizens whose personal information has been obtained, typically without an individual warrant. Two federal judges have accused the NSA of violating the Constitution, and President Obama also organized a panel of external advisors to weigh in, including five legal and intelligence experts.
This panel has recommended imposing restrictions on the NSA. Its most significant recommendation was for the President to restructure an existing program in which the NSA collects Americans’ phone call logs. Rather than giving a small group of agency officials the power to authorize the search of an individual’s telephone contacts, this panel urged that the data remain in the hands of the given private company, and that the NSA should be required to obtain a court order in surveillance court each time the information is needed “for queries and data mining.”
The Guardian wrote, “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.” Given that Snowden’s charges were motivated by illegal activity he observed in the NSA, his case is an aberration. He chose to break the law to expose law breaking within the very entity that should be protecting the safety and fundamental rights of its citizens. Obama’s external panel called out this privacy issue as well: “In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty.” These same risks were some of Snowden’s motives. Clemency exists for circumstances in which established rules might be decidedly counterproductive or unwarranted, and for exceptional circumstances. While Snowden did technically break multiple US laws, he did so for the benefit of his fellow citizens, who deserve the privacy they are entitled to, unless a reasonable, articulable suspicion exists and can be argued before a judge. At minimum, the Obama Administration should consider a lesser sentence, given the atypical nature of the circumstances.