President Trump is embracing the pardon power, cleaning the slates of campaign advisers caught up in the Russia “collusion” investigation as well as Charles Kushner (his son-in-law’s father) and others. Trump is reportedly considering more, and some of his vocal boosters, including Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Matt Gaetz, and newly elected Republican populist Marjorie Taylor Greene, are publicly pushing Trump to grant one of those pardons to Edward Snowden. The former National Security Agency contractor stole 1.5 million classified documents in 2013 before fleeing to China and then Russia, where he lives today.
Snowden has become a hero for an ideologically diverse fusion of influential political observers. In addition to some populists and libertarians, he boasts the support of the ACLU and enjoys a sympathetic audience with leftist politicians such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and certain left-wing media favorites. Just a few weeks ago on MSNBC, Snowden was opining to the public about how to respond properly to disinformation in one breath while downplaying the significance of foreign nations’ interference in American elections in the next and castigating the U.S. government for “illegally” spying on Americans and “everyone else around the world” in another.
This last point is important as we disentangle myth from reality about who Snowden is and the damage he has done and continues to do.
Snowden is no patriot eager to defend the public from illegal government overreach. He is a flamboyant narcissist defending authoritarian governments such as China and Russia. Trump would be shamefully wrong to fall for Snowden’s ruse and pardon him. Rather, our government should ensure that appropriate charges are filed with Interpol and that Snowden’s status as a wanted fugitive is notorious so that he can be apprehended if he is ever found straying outside his Russian sanctuary.
In 2016, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, led by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes and Democratic ranking member Adam Schiff, both of California, released the findings of its two-year investigation on the Snowden case. This public report is an essential document to the debate over Snowden and the larger issue he represents.
In the summer of 2012, Snowden, while an NSA contractor, began downloading classified files, some of which included details on the NSA’s PRISM domestic metadata collection program. In December of the same year, he contacted journalist Glenn Greenwald, and the following month, he contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras. He continued to work as a contractor, with responsibilities that included analyzing foreign networks to help the NSA defend against network attacks from adversaries including Russia and China. In June 2013, he fled to Hong Kong, then Russia. Greenwald published some of Snowden’s disclosures, including those related to the PRISM surveillance program.
There are three principal arguments Snowden’s defenders make in favor of a presidential pardon.
The first is that Snowden is a whistleblower, the second that the NSA program was illegal. But Snowden did have lawful whistleblower protections as a contractor, and if he did not feel comfortable reporting his complaints to the Office of the Inspector General, he was legally permitted to engage with the congressional intelligence committees.
Then there is the compelling fact that the program he alerted the public to was not a secret to Congress and was arguably a reasonable application of the law. The USA PATRIOT Act was written and then reauthorized to enable the intelligence community to pursue terrorists aggressively after 9/11. Section 215 explicitly permitted the FBI to acquire business records, including phone-usage records pertaining to foreigners and Americans if there was a terrorism connection. This provision was controversial, and there were many oversight hearings and committee debates between libertarians and national security conservatives on the relevant committees. The national security conservatives won the debate, the bill was enacted in 2001, and it was reauthorized in 2006. More than a dozen federal judges ruled in favor of the metadata collection program over a decade, although in 2015, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Section 215 went beyond what Congress intended.
The program Snowden targeted had regular oversight and did catch some rare individual instances of abuse. But those exceptions and their exposure occurred within the bounds of the legal strictures of the classified world, even if activists believed there should be greater transparency. And, despite the wide cast of the net of the data collected, the NSA queried the database infrequently, and when it did, it helpfully contributed to counterterrorism cases, some connected to the U.S. homeland.
As with all laws, those unhappy with the law itself should work to persuade the public and Congress to make changes, as they went on to do when Congress passed the 2015 USA FREEDOM Act and will periodically debate when provisions are due to sunset. The alternative is lawlessness.
The third principal argument Snowden’s pardon advocates make is that Snowden is a man of the people who stood up to the deep state. The past four years of the Trump administration have revealed just how partisan and, frankly, corrupt and unhinged the senior leaders of our intelligence community can be. The thinking goes: We cannot trust them, and we should be skeptical of their campaign against Snowden. But justified frustration with some intelligence and law enforcement officials does not justify absolving a criminal who willfully aids our enemies and to this day remains unrepentant.
And I do mean “aids” — present tense. Of the 1.5 million files he pilfered, only an infinitesimal percentage had anything to do with domestic surveillance. According to the congressional report, a significant portion of the files pertained to military and intelligence programs whose disclosure ended intelligence streams that had saved lives. When Michael Flynn was the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the agency did its own review of the damage Snowden’s leaks cause to the U.S. military and its operations. Testifying before Congress, Flynn said of Snowden: “I have no doubt that he has placed the men and women of our armed forces at risk and that his disclosures will cost lives on our future battlefields.”
Downloading such a large cache of files on what the United States was doing to understand, deter, and combat America’s enemies cannot be justified by perversely waving the flag of concern for the innocent. And this brings us back to a key point: Snowden has been touting America’s spying on our enemies, including our spying on China.
Snowden sure seems to have a soft spot for China, an authoritarian regime that operates the largest, most sophisticated surveillance state in the history of the world. The Nunes report said a co-worker told congressional aides that “Snowden once claimed that, based on his meetings with Chinese hackers at a conference, the United States caused problems for China, but China never caused problems for the United States.”
But Snowden’s peculiar China affinity became more blatant in the wake of his disclosures. When Snowden spoke to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, he praised the Hong Kong justice system as superior to the American justice system and went to bat for the Chinese government against the U.S. He told the Chinese paper in 2013 that the U.S. had been hacking “hundreds” of universities, businesses, and public officials in mainland China. Snowden provided a public relations boon for the Chinese Communist Party, which had been insisting that the U.S. was not superior to its country or system of government, and had been trying to deflect criticism for China’s rampant cyberattacks and intellectual property theft. Snowden said he provided the world those details in hopes of exposing “the hypocrisy of the U.S. government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries.”
But not only did Snowden verbally spill the beans about American spying on Beijing to the Chinese, he also provided highly damaging files related to the U.S. effort to understand how the Chinese Communist Party was using telecom companies for espionage. According to the New York Times, relying on Snowden files, the NSA had secretly tapped into the networks of Chinese telecom and internet giant Huawei. This revelation occurred back in 2014, several years before the Trump administration would rightly draw the world’s attention to Huawei’s espionage threat to the U.S. and its allies and begin informing the public about China’s lack of a true divide between civilian and military sectors. After Hong Kong declined to extradite Snowden, Beijing did not hesitate to defend that “decision.”
Snowden’s help to Beijing is far less discussed than his connections to Russia, since that is where he remains to this day. Hence, much of the relevant damage he continues to do gets overlooked. Snowden insists he did not share intelligence with the Russians, but that defies credulity. In the “Foreign Influence” section of the congressional intelligence committee’s report, most of the content is blacked out due to classification. But it did leave one morsel: Since Snowden’s arrival in Moscow, he had and continues to have contact with the Russian intelligence service. In a nation with continued hostile actions against the United States, and a state-controlled press and censored internet, it is impossible to conclude he is not cooperating with Moscow.
It is bizarre that as the Trump administration leads the country through a seismic shift in U.S.-Chinese relations, some of his supporters are also celebrating a man who sought to strengthen China versus the United States in precisely the ways the Trump administration is parrying now. And as the Trump administration carries out a ferocious anti-terrorism campaign leaning heavily on the intelligence community to seek and destroy high-value targets, some supporters cheer a man who we know thwarted anti-terrorism work and endangered our friends and allies helping us bear the burden of that work in blood and treasure.
Back in 2013, Trump said, “I think Snowden is a terrible threat, I think he’s a terrible traitor.” He also said, “We can’t allow this guy to go out there and give out all our secrets and also embarrass us at every level. We should get him back and get him back now.”
Trump’s assessment of Snowden’s harm was right the first time and has only been vindicated since.
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