Theres little truth in the five charges most often levelled at the whistleblower. Heres why he deserves acclaim, not punishment
With the launch of Oliver Stones Snowden film this past weekend came a renewed push for a pardon for Edward Snowden from the worlds leading human rights organizations.
But predictably, not everyone agreed that he should be pardoned. On Saturday, the Washington Post editorial board deplorably editorialized against it despite its own paper winning the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on his leaked documents.
They joined many of his other detractors in making old and factually incorrect arguments about what Snowden actually did. As the movement demanding his exoneration grows nonetheless, here are five common misconceptions about the whistleblower and why they are wrong.
Snowden did not take 1.5m documents and dump them en masse on the internet
Snowden critics love to pretend that everything the public learned from his disclosures was solely because he chose to release the information. In reality, the number of documents that Snowden published himself is zero. Instead of dumping a mass of documents on the internet, he gave them to experienced national security reporters who worked at some of the most respected news outlets in the country. He relied on their judgments about what was in the public interest. And those reporters allowed the government to make objections (some of which they listened to) tied to national security concerns.
The Washington Post claimed, as others have in the past, that Snowden copied and kept 1.5m classified documents. Snowdens lawyer, Ben Wizner, has called that number absurd and made up. Even the former NSA director himself admitted that the 1.5m number only represented the documents that Snowden touched, and officials didnt know how many he actually took.
The real number is likely at least an order of magnitude lower, according to public comments by the journalists involved, which the Post editorial board could have found out if they had bothered to ask their own colleagues.
Theres no evidence Snowden harmed national security
The House intelligence committee published an error-riddled report on Snowden last week, making vague claims about damage to national security in a naked attempt to counter the narrative in Oliver Stones movie. Three-time Pulitzer prize winner Barton Gellman dismantled the whole report point-by-point on his blog.
We know the US government makes all sorts of dire predictions when information is leaked to the press (the Pentagon Papers, the Chelsea Manning disclosures and the release of the torture report, to name a few cases), and it is always caught exaggerating. The Snowden disclosures are no exception. As the Washington Post reported two years ago:
[Director of national intelligence James] Clapper has said repeatedly in public that the leaks did great damage, but in private he has taken a more nuanced stance. A review of early damage assessments in previous espionage cases, he said in one closed-door briefing this fall, found that dire forecasts of harm were seldom borne out.
The House intelligence committee did not point to a single concrete example of how national security was harmed solely by the Snowden disclosures.
Snowden could not go through proper channels to blow the whistle
The idea that Snowden is not a whistleblower because he didnt go through internal government channels to make his claims is absurd on two fronts. First, at the time Snowden gave his material to the Guardian and Washington Post, he was a government contractor, and contractors were exempt from most whistleblower protections given to national security employees. (Politifact called Hillary Clintons statement that he had access to whistleblower protections mostly false.)
But this argument is a red herring anyway. Snowden was not blowing the whistle on some rogue NSA agent or a program that only a handful of people knew about. These mass surveillance programs (later ruled illegal) were approved at the highest levels of the executive branch and by the Fisa court. Snowden would have essentially been telling his superiors, who already knew about them and were tasked with carrying them out, that they themselves were breaking the law.
Snowden did not flee to Russia and has regularly criticized Russias human rights record
There is a persistent yet false accusation that since Snowden is in exile in Russia, he fled there and has cooperated with the Russian government (in the words of the Posts editorial, Mr Snowden hurt his own credibility as an avatar of freedom by accepting asylum from Russias Vladimir Putin).
This is false. The only reason he is in Russia is because the US government canceled his passport as he was transiting through the Russian airport to Latin America. He was marooned there against his will. Everyone, including Snowden himself, wishes he wasnt in Russia, but the alternative is being thrown in a maximum security prison in the United States. At least right now he is free to participate in the international debate virtually.
Snowden has harshly criticized Russias human rights and civil liberties record so many times at this point that it is hard to count (including, in 2014, in an op-ed for the Guardian). Snowdens condemnation has been so strong that the former US ambassador to Russia (and Snowden critic) Michael McFaul recently tweeted: @Snowden makes a stronger statement about human rights regression in Russia than anything I ever said as [Ambassador]. Wow.
He cannot make his case to a jury in what the Post called the best tradition of civil disobedience
In a perfect world, Snowden could come home and tell his story to a jury, as many of his critics say he should. However, this belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the law Snowden is charged under. The Espionage Act a first world war-era statute meant for spies, not whistleblowers who give information to the press does not allow for a public interest defense. Snowden would literally not be allowed to tell the jury his motive for leaking the information, describe the benefits of the disclosures, or discuss their lack of harm to national security.
The most famous whistleblower in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, has made this point repeatedly and is on the record as saying that Snowden was right to leave the country so he could continue to participate in the public debate around his disclosures.
Edward Snowden sits on the board of directors at Freedom of the Press Foundation, where the author is executive director