It is difficult to conceive of a debate with as conflicting of views or further-reaching implications than the Edward Snowden saga. I am not a lawyer, and it is beyond the scope of this column to declare a specific punishment for Snowden, but there is little doubt of the following: Snowden stole the documents which he currently possesses; his most recent revelations have been designed to damage the NATO alliance; and there is zero chance that he is aware of the magnitude of his leaks. These facts necessitate that Snowden be punished for his leaks, and while his supporters may seek to obfuscate the facts, their arguments do not hold weight when subjected to scrutiny.
Snowden and his leaks have been compared numerous times to Daniel Ellsberg and the famous “Pentagon Papers” during the Nixon era. This comparison, while providing for an excellent soundbite for Snowden supporters, is without any standing. While Snowden is estimated to have in his possession over 1.7 million documents, Ellsberg leaked a single report which he himself wrote. Ellsberg had full knowledge of the report and its implications, while Snowden could not possibly have read all of the documents he took. Ellsberg had been fully “read in” to the Vietnam War study he helped write, while Snowden, a contractor, took documents from different NSA departments. Because of the NSA’s compartmentalized classification procedures, the only explanation, then, is that Snowden stole these documents from NSA databases and did not come into possession of them by lawful means. The most glaring difference, of course, is that while the activities disclosed by Ellsberg were illegal in that they had not been approved by Congress, the programs described by Snowden’s leaks have, broadly speaking, been repeatedly approved by Congress.
Most pernicious, however, is the damage done by Snowden’s leaks to the until now robust NATO intelligence relationship. While Snowden’s leaks originally pertained exclusively to domestic surveillance on Americans and foreigners living in America, they soon began to emphasize the relationship between America’s intelligence agencies and those of its allies, as well as American snooping on the communications of foreign leaders. Although many of the positions taken by foreign governments in response to the leaks have been bluster to appease angry citizens, the EU has recently considered renegotiating its intelligence agreement with the US, and has also considered sidelining a critical free trade pact with the United States. Spying among friends and allies is an unpalatable reality of the international system. Even Israel, among America’s most ardent allies, has frequently been caught snooping on American classified information.
And of course, we cannot forget that Snowden fled to two bastions of internet freedom: China and Russia. Not only did Snowden take refuge in these two authoritarian countries, but his presence there allowed Russian and Chinese officials, who have for years been lambasted by the West as draconian when it comes to Internet freedoms, to engage in haughty and hypocritical condescension towards their adversaries. Snowden’s assertion that the documents are not in the hands of Chinese or Russian governments does not pass the laugh test. The documents have been in China, Russia, Brazil and Germany (transported by Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda), and to think that one man under constant surveillance was able to resist the attempts by the intelligence agencies of sovereign states to gain access to these documents is preposterous and wishful thinking. Further, not only had Snowden been in contact with Russian officials before his landing in Moscow, but his Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucharena, also works as an advocate for the FSB, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. From his landing, Snowden has been under the constant vigilance of the FSB and does not live a solitary life of “ramen noodles and chips” as described in a recent New York Times interview.
I do not lament the debate on privacy and civil liberties that has come about since the leaks. The concerns are legitimate, and some reform is necessary. I am also hard-pressed to defend Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s perjury before Congress. However, given that these programs had in some way been reported by newspapers like USA Today in years past means that there is zero justification for Snowden’s leaks. This, the final and supposedly strongest argument offered by Snowden defenders, does not withstand serious scrutiny. There is considerably more to be said about Snowden, his motivations, and the implications of his crimes. Public misinformation on the utility and limits of the programs is widespread, and the government has not been particularly effective in making its case. As a result, Snowden’s disclosures have appeal to conspiracy theorists, libertarians and leftists alike. While Snowden may have envisioned a grand welcome to his revelations, the truth sheds a harsher light on his crimes. While he may never return to the United States, he will constantly be looking over his back where, even as a defector to a nation whose cause he benefitted tremendously, he is still no hero.