By Michael A. Lindenberger
The case for Edward Snowden is on. A new movie, a new push by the ACLU and strong voices in The Washington Post are all urging President Barack Obama to pardon the whistle-blower-turned-refugee before a new president is sworn in Jan. 20.
The president should say no.
Instead, he should offer Snowden a deal. Come home, give a full accounting of who he has met while in exile and what further information may have been exposed. He should be sentenced to prison, but should not serve more than a year or two.
So no, Snowden doesn’t deserve a pardon. But he does deserve a break.
He deserves leniency because the information he released to journalists was of extraordinary value to his nation. The leaked documents revealed the National Security Agency routinely abused the powers Congress had provided it and showed that the government had compromised encryption at giant tech firms around the world. It opened his countrymen and women’s eyes to just how far down the road to a surveillance state we had allowed ourselves to become.
You needn’t take my word for this.
Two newspapers that worked most closely with Snowden’s revelations won a Pulitzer Prize for their journalism. Obama appointed a bipartisan task force to explore changes to the NSA surveillance programs, and it recommended sweeping overhauls.
Federal courts, at district and appellate levels, ruled aspects of the program had been illegal. The ACLU, which spent years pursuing those cases, has stated unequivocally that the evidence provided by Snowden’s leaks were the reason it began to win in court.
So serious were the misgivings over the now-infamous Section 215 of the Patriot Act that the Senate allowed the program to expire in June of last year, despite a furious rear-guard fight led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Congress passed and the president quickly signed the USA Freedom Act, which introduced important limits on the government’s surveillance program and freed tech companies from oppressive gag orders that had been part of the government’s approach.
That legislation drew 339 votes in the House and was among the finest hours of the tea party, which joined with libertarians and liberals to drive these changes. In the Senate, Sen. Ted Cruz had one of his best moments in supporting the bill, which despite McConnell’s fury passed with 67 votes.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told colleagues that the American public had demanded these changes and not even the reforms pushed by Obama went far enough. “As we speak, millions of telephone records are flowing into the NSA on a daily basis, 24 hours a day seven days a week,” he told his colleagues, adding that the American people had demanded that that stop. “Americans’ liberty and America’s security can coexist. That these fundamental concepts are not mutually exclusive.”
None of that would have happened without Snowden.
So why not pardon him altogether?
Because there are secrets that are worth keeping. Because an act of civil disobedience does not mean an act without consequences. And because Snowden’s flight to China and then to Russia carried risks to our security that cannot be overlooked.
What the situation demands is leniency. And a simple recognition that we’re all better off with Snowden back in the U.S., rather than in exile.
In fact, that’s what was called for from the very beginning. The approach Obama should have demanded from the beginning. The moment Snowden surfaced in Hong Kong, an American team should have been on its way to bring him back. Obama should have ordered his national security chiefs to end their wild and brazen talk about treason and the Espionage Act.
Snowden was never a traitor. And by treating him like one, we only pushed him further into exile. That was on us. We should have made a deal — one he could have accepted — and brought him home.
We still should. Snowden is no saint. But he has performed a service to his country. There is a price to pay for breaking its laws. But it ought to be a price leavened with the recognition of the good he did, and the patriotic motives that made him do it.