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 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Article
Power of Attorney·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

Article
Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Article
Carlitos in Charge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was in Midtown, sitting by a dry fountain, making a list of all the men I’d slept with since my last checkup—doctor’s orders. Afterward, I would head downtown and wait for Quimby at the bar, where there were only alcoholics and the graveyard shift this early. I’d just left the United Nations after a Friday morning session—likely my last. The agenda had included resolutions about a worldwide ban on plastic bags, condemnation of a Slobodan Miloševic statue, sanctions on Israel, and a truth and reconciliation commission in El Salvador. Except for the proclamation opposing the war criminal’s marble replica, everything was thwarted by the United States and a small contingent of its allies. None of this should have surprised me. Some version of these outcomes had been repeating weekly since World War II.

Article
Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today