Snowden should be pardoned

By Stefan Herlitz


In late May, Edward Snowden, while working as a system administrator at National Security Agency (NSA) consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked thousands of documents regarding the scope and goals of NSA spy programs to Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, and Laura Poitras, a film director.

When The Guardian and The Washington Post released this story, along with Snowden’s identity (at his request) in June, it ignited a massive controversy that remains headline news months later. Likened to Daniel Ellsberg’s releasing Pentagon Papers or Chelsea Manning’s leaking classified documents about the War on Terror to Wikileaks, the Snowden revelations thrust the NSA, a secretive group with a much larger budget than the famous CIA, into the public eye.

The NSA collects monumental amounts of data and metadata as part of its intelligence directive under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and the Patriot Act, It is authorized to wiretap, bug, intercept, track and monitor any and all communications “for national foreign intelligence purposes” under Executive Order 12333, and as such may only collect foreign data and domestic data pertaining to foreign intelligence (i.e., terrorism).

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) issues all warrants for the collection of such domestic data. This court has approved approximately 34,000 such warrants since its founding in 1979, averaging about 1,000 per year. One warrant, which forced Verizon to continuously hand over user call records, was a particularly large source of controversy.

We knew this already. Edward Snowden’s actions have not revealed anything surprising about the U.S. surveillance system. After all, not only were the acts that authorized this surveillance very publicly passed, but the NSA’s phone record database failed to ignite significant public controversy when USAToday’s Leslie Cauley published a story about it in 2006. All Edward Snowden did was violently shove these facts into the public eye.

Edward Snowden is no whistleblower: the NSA actions that he “unveiled” were perfectly legal under current law. But, he damaged U.S. intelligence collection by publicly revealing to our rivals exactly how we collect data and immediately fled not to a neutral, free country, but to China-controlled Hong Kong, which has never been known for freedom of any variety, let alone freedom of the press. To make this even worse, after leaving his hiding place in Hong Kong, Snowden flew to Russia, home to one of the poorest-functioning “democracies” on the planet and President Vladimir Putin, a dictator in all but name.

Snowden is, by any definition, a criminal. Whistleblower law covers journalists who reveal secret information to the public, not contractors who willfully violate their contracts and flee the country to divulge state secrets. However, we should not ignore the fact that he has singlehandedly advanced the movement for privacy rights. His contribution, while clearly criminal, has revealed to the people of the United States what is actually happening, something that likely would have never happened without such an action. You need to be able to see a problem to fix it.

President Obama should pardon Edward Snowden. Doing so would allow him to move home and continue his mission to fight for the privacy rights of the American people and would be a symbol of good faith from an administration that has been publicly blasted for not doing enough to protect privacy rights. A presidential pardon would let Snowden advance the public debate over the NSA and other programs, while simultaneously acknowledging that Edward Snowden is, in fact, guilty.

Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]