Well timed with the release of Oliver Stone’s Snowden biopic, is the Pardon Snowden campaign, which is essentially an ACLU sponsored online petition aimed at convincing President Obama to use some of his final-days karma points on a pardon for the NSA whistle blower. I signed it. I think you should isgn it, too. I don’t think it will actually result in a pardon; I’m too cynical to believe in the magic fairy dust of clicktivism. The power of petitions is to show popular support, and they’re often at their most powerful when they reveal how those in government refuse to listen to those they govern. So, do please sign it. I hope millions of Americans do.
I think I’ll forever prefer Laura Poitras’ documentary, CitizenFour, which soberly and chillingly details the NSA’s mass surveillance program as revealed by it’s one-time contract employee. But I will be getting around to Stone’s dramatization of Snowden’s story, and I’m fairly sure I’ll find it entertaining. I think it’s a tad too soon, and there’s a real problem that the fictionalized bits of the film may filter into the popular conscious as being historical fact, but if a fact-based thriller revives the necessary discussion on the United States’ descent into being a dangerous, mass surveillance super-state, then so be it.
The America of today still needs its exiles like Snowden. While I’m sure he’d really like to go home, see family and friends, get back to something approaching normality and all that, a pardon would be be a public relations exercise. It would not fix anything. Snowden’s inability to return home — as excruciating as that must be — continues to to poke America in a soft spot that needs prodding with a sharp stick. So I hope he gets to go home; and I know that as an exile, he will continue to have more impact. The latter will probably continue to be the case.
The country (both its establishment and a fairly substantial percentage of its citizenry) has not come to grips with the fact that is has a problem. As of 2015, about 42% of Americans expressed approval of the NSA mass surveillance program. That it’s a “minority” isn’t that comforting when it’s just under half. That means there’s just 9% to the majority. Inside the political establishment, there is something approaching to a consensus on the subject.
The FBI is still lobbying for any legal encryption technology to include a backdoor for intelligence gathering, in spite of this being proven to be both dangerous and ultimately unworkable. And the Justice Department is now preparing to make legal the FBI’s use of malware against millions of computers, regardless of whether their users are suspected of anything.
“Without Snowden, the American people could not balance for themselves the risks, costs and benefits of omniscient domestic surveillance. Because of him, we can,” wrote former CIA officer Barry Eisler in Time. I think it’s important to emphasize the word “former” there. For each one of him, there are dozens in Washington, D.C, who don’t want the status quo adjusted or even questioned.
“Without question, history will vindicate Edward Snowden as it has Daniel Ellsberg,” says Eisler, and I agree with him entirely. But I’m doubtful that Obama will take the opportunity to be on history’s right side. The president has been wildly supportive of the surveillance state, and he’s now busy campaigning for Hillary Clinton, who has been outspoken on wanting to put Snowden on trial as a traitor, and doesn’t seem to possess working knowledge on what a whistle blower is.
Beyond that, there is no political will inside the American political establishment for a change to the present state of things. The Washington Post, which used Snowden as a source for it’s Pulitzer winning articles on NSA spy programs, has turned around and called for him to be prosecuted for releasing the documents that it, in turn, made public.
In no uncertain terms, The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence made clear that “Edward Snowden is no hero – he’s a traitor who willfully betrayed his colleagues and his country,” in spite of there being no evidence to anything released doing anything but reputational harm (significant as that may be) and causing more people to re-evaluate the existence of certain activities. The Committee press release reminds that We the People can’t actually see the report, but rest assured, it’s 36 pages long and has 230 footnotes. What that’s supposed to tell us, I have not one clue. It’s like saying ‘okay, we can’t tell you why we think this, but you can trust it because the report is printed on some high quality paper and uses a very readable sans-serif font.’
The entire committee executive summary of the mystery report is misleading, and that’s already been explored by investigative journalist Barton Gellman, here. But it’s fueling the technocratic red herring arguments, like that from Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith, whose entire argument hinges on the claim that “it is naïve or disingenuous to think that the damage to U.S. intelligence operations was anything but enormous,” without citing any evidence to support the claim in what amounts to a rant that mostly focuses on perceptions of what it means to swear national allegiance and pithy remarks one why he doesn’t like presidential pardons. And he teaches law.
In some sort of magical reality alternate universe where President Obama decides to give Edward Snowden a pardon, it will not be a signal that anything has changed. Not in terms of the U.S.’s relationship with its invasive mass surveillance techniques, and not with its increasing lazzais faire attitude about various agencies using off-the-shelf, whack-a-mole malware in what seems to pass for targeted surveillance. In that context, a pardon would be a propaganda move. This policy trajectory would not change under a President Clinton, and would likely take a turn for the bizarre (if not worse) under a President Trump.
So, support a pardon for Edward Snowden because of what it will mean when it doesn’t happen. America needs its exiles. They may one day be the only ones who can speak freely about what’s wrong with it.