Commentary: Edward Snowden deserves a pardon


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Edward Snowden’s actions as a whistleblower have prompted numerous debates on whether he is a patriot or a traitor.

It was the early winter of 1777 on a cold American warship, anchored outside Providence, Rhode Island. On it, ten American sailors and marines met in secret.

Speaking in hushed tones, they discussed the concerns they had about the commander-in-chief, Esek Hopkins of the Continental Navy. They all had stories about how he’d spread slanderous claims about the Continental Congress, failed to attack British ships head on and, most worryingly, brutally tortured British prisoners of war.

But it was not so simple. He was the highest-ranking officer in the Continental Navy, and worse still, he was the brother of Stephen Hopkins, the governor of Rhode Island and a Declaration signer.

As the aristocratic tendencies of Britain were still in full force at the time of the Revolution, the sailors knew they were staking their military careers and reputations on the line if they reported him.

Elected to represent the ten men, John Grannis presented their signed petition asking for Hopkins’s dismissal, and on March 26, 1777, the Continental Congress voted to suspend Hopkins.

Enraged, he dismissed the ten men and filed criminal libel charges against them. Samuel Shaw and Richard Maven, two of the men involved in the petition, were arrested in Rhode Island. They sent a petition to Congress, asserting that they were apprehended for what they believed to be their duty.

On July 30, 1778, Congress passed the United States’s first whistleblower protection act, known as the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1778. Not only that, but Congress paid for the legal fees wrought by the lawsuit, and the whistleblowers won the case.

Resolved, That it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge,” stated the measure passed by the Continental Congress.

It is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States … to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.

— Continental Congress 1778

235 years later, on June 6, 2013, the first trickle of the largest intelligence leak in United States history began. The Guardian reported that the National Security Agency had been, under a top-secret order, illegally collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers across the US.

The following day, The Washington Post reported that a top-secret program called PRISM had been illegally mining data at the discretion of the National Security Agency and Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s counterpart to the NSA. Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple’s servers had all been acting as farms for data. 

Over the next year, more and more information came out, until the big picture of what the NSA had done became clear.

In a horrifically dystopian, unconstitutional and warrantless move, the NSA had constructed a staggering system that collected the IP addresses, phone records, emails, documents, browsing history, photographs, downloads and more of billions of people, which they stored in a top-secret database in Hawaii. This decision allowed them to violate the privacy of every man, woman and child that had ever accessed the Internet. 

Soon, the originator of the leak stepped forward, a man named Edward Snowden. 

While working as a contractee for Dell, he was assigned to Hawaii as the lead technologist for the NSA’s information sharing office.

There, he saw for himself the Stellarwind database, the codename for the mass surveillance system that was started under George W. Bush.

Appalled, he took a leave of absence for medical reasons and fled to Hong Kong, where he contacted Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian and Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, who disseminated the information to the public.

The reaction of the world was one of horror and disgust. Longstanding US allies had tensions strained like they hadn’t been in decades, angered that the NSA had been illegally spying on their allies.

The revelations sparked a long overdue conversation on how the government needed to balance safety and security.

Then President Barack Obama garnered well-deserved criticism and accusations for his handling of the affair. Obama often defended the program, claiming that the same nations outraged by the spying did the same to the U.S. and falsely maintaining the lie that the NSA was incapable and unwilling to launch such a campaign against the American people.

Later, he walked this statement back, agreeing that the program did exist and that it would have been better if the public hadn’t learned about it.

Obama was harsh against leakers like no president before him had been. He turned a blind eye to another leaker who revealed similar information, Chelsea Manning. She received international attention at her extrajudicial arrest and torture, with the United Nations stepping in to condemn the U.S. government’s detainment of her as, “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”

Today, the full extent of Snowden’s disclosures remains unknown. He remains a divisive figure, with many lauding him as a hero and many denouncing him as a traitor.

Trump has gravitated both ways, in the past calling him treasonous but recently suggesting he may pardon him.

The release of the information, while illegal, revealed a far greater crime. When an unjust, international spying program is considered an equally heinous crime as the reporting of the crime, it becomes clear there are traitors to the United States that aren’t Edward Snowden. 

Snowden was exiled to Russia. Banished from his home country, he gave up life as he knew it so that future generations could live in a world free from such terrors.

Edward Snowden is a hero who deserves a presidential pardon, and it is a national disgrace he even needs one in the first place.

The NSA should never have betrayed the Constitution like they did. They never should have created such a horrible program. 

Obama gave an intentionally false excuse to not pardon Snowden, Trump is on his way out, and President-Elect Joe Biden worked alongside Obama to prevent U.S. allies from granting Snowden his request for asylum.

Unless Trump remembers he exists in the next two months, Snowden won’t receive his pardon until at least 2024.

Perhaps human rights activists will put pressure on Biden to pardon him or the winner of the 2024 election will possibly be open to doing so, but until then, Edward Snowden will remain in Russia, slowly fading from the national consciousness until the NSA sees the opportunity to resume their program.