Sorting Through the Snowden Aftermath

By September 19, 2016

Public discussion of the Edward Snowden case has mostly been a dialog of the deaf, with defenders and critics largely talking past each other at increasing volume. But the disagreements became sharper and more interesting over the past week.

“Mr. Snowden is not a patriot. He is not a whistleblower. He is a criminal,” wrote the members of the House Intelligence Committee in a startling September 15 letter to the President, urging him not to pardon Snowden, contrary to the urging of human rights groups.

“The public narrative popularized by Snowden and his allies is rife with falsehoods, exaggerations, and crucial omissions,” the House Intelligence Committee wrote in the executive summary of an otherwise classified report on Snowden’s disclosures.

Remarkably, however, the House Committee report itself included numerous false statements and misrepresentations, according to an analysis by Barton Gellman, who had reported on Snowden’s disclosures for the Washington Post.

“The report is not only one-sided, not only incurious, not only contemptuous of fact. It is trifling,” wrote Gellman, who identified several apparent errors and falsehoods in the House Committee summary.

What is perhaps worse than what’s contained in the House document, though, is what is missing from it: Congressional intelligence overseers missed the opportunity to perform any reflection or self-criticism concerning their own role in the Snowden matter.

The fact that U.S. intelligence surveillance policies had to be modified in response to the public controversy over Snowden’s disclosures was a tacit admission that intelligence oversight behind closed doors had failed to fulfill its role up to that point. But since the Committee has been unwilling to admit any such failure, it remains unable to take the initiative to rectify its procedures.

Last week, a coalition of non-governmental organizations proposed various changes to House rules that they said would help to improve the quality of intelligence oversight and make it more responsive to congressional needs and to the public interest.

Meanwhile, several human rights organizations launched a campaign to urge President Obama to pardon Snowden.

“Thanks to his act of conscience, America’s surveillance programs have been subjected to democratic scrutiny, the NSA’s surveillance powers were reined in for the first time in decades, and technology companies around the world are newly invigorated to protect their customers and strengthen our communications infrastructure,” the petition website said. “Snowden should be hailed as a hero. Instead, he is exiled in Moscow, and faces decades in prison under World War One-era charges that treat him like a spy.”

However, aside from that oblique reference to the Espionage Act of 1917, the petition campaign does not acknowledge any defect in Snowden’s conduct or weigh counterarguments. (A somewhat more nuanced defense of a pardon was presented by Tim Edgar in Lawfare. A substantial rebuttal to the pardon proposal was offered by Jack Goldsmith also in Lawfare.)

But of course what complicates the Snowden matter is that his disclosures exceeded the boundaries of “democratic scrutiny” and went well beyond any identifiable “act of conscience.”

“The fact is, many of Snowden’s documents bore no resemblance to whistleblowing as the phrase is broadly understood,” wrote Fred Kaplan in a review of the new Oliver Stone movie about Snowden in Slate. Rather, he said, they represented “an attempt to blow U.S. intelligence operations.”

Advocacy journalist Glenn Greenwald replied with a debater’s point that Snowden is innocent of any such offense since he (Snowden) did not directly disclose anything at all to the public! Instead, he gave documents to newspapers that reported on his material, and those papers are responsible for any inappropriate disclosures.

“Snowden himself never publicly disclosed a single document, so any programs that were revealed were the ultimate doing of news organizations,” according to Greenwald.

In an oddly mercenary argument, he also wrote that it was hypocritical of the Washington Post editorial board to oppose a pardon for Snowden, considering that the Post had gained “untold millions of clicks” from his disclosures, and therefore somehow owed him a debt of loyalty.

But an effort to shift responsibility away from Snowden on to news reporters and editors proves too much. It implies that Snowden is not a whistleblower at all, since he himself didn’t blow any whistles, his journalistic collaborators did.

It seems more sensible to conclude that Snowden is responsible for his own actions as well as for the directly foreseeable consequences of those actions.

In an interesting response to Jack Goldsmith, Marcy Wheeler wrote that it is possible to comprehend — if not to reconcile — the sharply opposing views of the Snowden case if they are understood as a clash between professed American values (such as openness, privacy, and internet freedom) and American interests and actions (such as global surveillance and projection of military power). The former, “cosmopolitan” view presumes, however, that the favored values transcend, and can be sustained apart from, their national and institutional roots.

Categories: Intelligence, Oversight, Snowden