No Comment — August 12, 2013, 7:55 am

Obama’s Snowden Dilemma

How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?

Illustration by Terry Stevenson, Harper's Magazine, December 1974

Illustration by Terry Stevenson, Harper’s Magazine, December 1974

In a Friday press conference, following months of ill-considered tactics in response to Edward Snowden’s leaking of information about global National Security Agency activities, Barack Obama finally acknowledged that concerns about the expanse of the NSA’s surveillance operations were legitimate, and that an important debate had indeed been triggered by the Snowden disclosures: 

Given the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance⁠—particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives. I’m also mindful of how these issues are viewed overseas, because American leadership around the world depends upon the example of American democracy and American openness⁠—because what makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation, it’s the way we do it⁠—with open debate and democratic process. In other words, it’s not enough for me, as President, to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as well.

Obama went on to highlight a series of changes he would support, which include amending the provision of the Patriot Act that the NSA has invoked to support its current surveillance programs and implementing measures to ensure that civil rights concerns are considered when surveillance requests are being reviewed. His administration also released two white papers, one prepared by the DOJ, the other by the NSA, that set out the purported legal basis for NSA surveillance activities, and that attempt to explain the activities themselves. And the administration promised to release, on August 21, a secret 2011 FISA court opinion that found a particular NSA surveillance program to be unconstitutional.

Such concessions had become necessary because of the Obama Administration’s many self-inflicted wounds on the issue. Instead of acknowledging the problems with the NSA programs⁠—by, say, admitting fully what the programs entailed, implementing legitimate privacy standards to keep them in check, or otherwise addressing the critical issue of the NSA’s self-arrogated power to trawl the communications of hundreds of millions of people who aren’t suspected of involvement in terrorism or criminal wrongdoing⁠—the Obama team chose to vilify Snowden and launch a public-relations offensive that was marked by mischaracterizations, oversimplifications, and rank falsehoods. (ProPublica assembled clips of six easily exposed prevarications uttered by senior officials⁠—including Obama himself⁠—in their rushed effort to swat down the initial scandal.)

Meanwhile, public-opinion polls were consistently showing that the American public accepted Snowden as a legitimate whistleblower; allied governments revealed to have been affected by the program were proving implacable; and an international boycott of the American telecommunications and Internet service providers who had acceded to the NSA’s requests loomed. Finally, Russia’s decision to grant Snowden temporary asylum meant that he wouldn’t fall into the net the Americans had been aggressively creating for him.

Obama’s concessions are unlikely to bring the controversy to a close, however. For one, he faces the question of what to do about Edward Snowden in the long term. On June 14, the Justice Department rushed out a series of charges against him for theft of government property and violations of the Espionage Act. (The complaint itself is under seal, but its essence can be gleaned from a coversheet that Justice Department attorneys⁠—in a moment of exquisite irony⁠—leaked to journalists.) But the president has now openly acknowledged that Snowden’s leaks paved the way for legitimate democratic dialogue on an issue that his administration had consciously and improperly attempted to keep out of the public’s view. He also admitted that concerns about the program are justified at least to some extent, and that some measure of reform is appropriate. Consequently, Obama has all but officially endorsed Snowden’s claim to being a bona-fide whistleblower⁠—a view that leading political figures on both sides of the aisle have endorsed, and that is shared by a clear majority of the American public. To prosecute Snowden under the Espionage Act would therefore present untenable risks for the government. He stands a chance of being acquitted almost anywhere in the country⁠—even in the Eastern District of Virginia, where the intelligence community would have the advantage of arguing before a prosecution-oriented bench.

And the government’s problems don’t end there. David Pozen, the author of an important recent study of how the U.S. government has historically dealt with leaks, notes that when the government vigorously prosecutes a person who is widely viewed as a legitimate whistleblower, it risks “a greater amount of unlawful disclosures, or at least a greater amount of destructive disclosures” as a result. A Snowden prosecution under the Espionage Act would clearly fit into that category, especially after Friday’s admissions.

This does not mean Snowden should get off scot-free. He violated his undertaking to keep government secrets, and he should never again be permitted to hold a security classification or to work for the government or any other entity that handles sensitive information. He may have forfeited any rights he had to pension and other benefits, and he may be subject to fines and some jail time. But the prosecutorial sledgehammer of the Espionage Act no longer seems appropriate to his deeds.

Once these charges have been withdrawn, Snowden may very well be prepared to return home to face his accusers⁠—and to shed some important light on the newly energized national discussion over the proper mission of the NSA. For Americans concerned about their disappearing rights of privacy, that would be a rare double victory.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2016

Tearing Up the Map

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Land of Sod

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Watchmen

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Acceptable Losses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Home

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
Andrew Cockburn on the Saudi slaughter in Yemen, Alan Jacobs on the disappearance of Christian intellectuals, a forum on a post-Obama foreign policy, a story by Alice McDermott, and more
Artwork by Ingo Günther
Article
Land of Sod·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.

Photograph by Mike Slack
Article
The Watchmen·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.

Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Acceptable Losses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.

Photograph by Alex Potter
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News

Chances that college students select as “most desirable‚” the same face chosen by the chickens:

49 in 50

Most of the United States’ 36,000 yearly bunk-bed injuries involve male victims.

In Italy, a legislator called for parents who feed their children vegan diets to be sentenced to up to six years in prison, and in Sweden, a woman attempted to vindicate her theft of six pairs of underwear by claiming she had severe diarrhea.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today