The following editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
President Donald Trump has put Edward Snowden back in the news. Asked if he would consider pardoning the former National Security Agency contractor, Trump said “I am going to take a very good look at it.”
Snowden faces criminal charges after he leaked classified documents revealing the scope of the NSA’s surveillance apparatus in 2013. He has been living in exile in Russia ever since.
From the beginning, most young Americans believed Snowden acted with the public’s interest in mind. The passage of time has revealed a broader shift in sympathy for Snowden, including from Trump, who once called the exiled American a “spy who should be executed.” His leaks are now being seen for what they were intended: a much-needed reckoning of government overreach.
Trump loves cutting deals, and it’s time to cut one with Snowden. Short of a pardon, Snowden can admit wrongdoing in exchange for a probation sentence. Seven years in exile has been enough; he should be allowed to return home without going to prison.
Snowden revealed that under the auspices of the Patriot Act, the NSA secretly and indiscriminately collected the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans. Also exposed were the lies that came from the very top of the U.S. national security establishment. The Obama administration’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lied to Congress in denying the collection of data.
There are competing interpretations of Snowden’s actions. For his critics, it is simple and straightforward. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney –– a vociferous defender of the NSA spying that he helped facilitate –– called Snowden a “traitor,” adding that a pardon would be “unconscionable.” This was echoed by Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who said it would be a “serious mistake” to consider clemency.
On the other hand, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Justin Amash, I-Mich., all support a presidential pardon. Sen. Paul, who called Snowden’s leak “an act of civil disobedience” said, “Mr. Clapper lied in Congress in the name of security. Mr. Snowden told the truth in the name of privacy.” The former committed perjury and got a sweet book deal; the latter told the truth and potentially faces life in prison.
Snowden was not selling secrets to the Russians or the Chinese. He simply revealed that the privacy of American citizens was being violated on a massive scale, with no demonstrable gain in security. Furthermore, members of Congress knew almost nothing about what the NSA was really doing, and this included members of the committees who were in oversight of intelligence gathering.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called Snowden’s act a “public service” for good reason. There has always been a robust debate in America about the balance between security and liberty, and the extent to which government should be spying on its citizens, but regardless of anyone’s views on surveillance and privacy, who among us would say that we are better off remaining ignorant about all the things our government is doing to us?