What if our government was secretly spying on private citizens—virtually all of us—in ways that would spark outrage if only we knew about it? The U.S. government has done this and continues to do so. Three years ago, a National Security Agency contractor named Edward Snowden decided everyone should know about it.
Why did Snowden do this? Because the U.S. government insisted it wasn’t spying on us.
Senator Ron Wyden asked NSA head James Clapper in March 2013 during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Clapper replied, “No, sir.”
“It does not?” Wyden followed up. “Not wittingly,” Clapper insisted. “There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
So is what Edward Snowden did.
A whistleblower knowingly and intentionally breaks the law for the greater civic good of informing his fellow citizens of government abuse. They know they will likely face legal repercussions. Snowden, too, expects to face the music—but wants to be treated the way Barack Obama promised whistleblowers would be back in 2008.
Obama’s president-elect website seven years ago featured an agenda item titled “Protect Whistleblowers” that declared, “Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out.” The statement continued, “Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled.” Obama seemingly wanted government employees to be “patriotic” and report wrongdoing and abuse.
If you see something, say something.
“We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing…” said the statement. “Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government.”
It concluded with, “Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.”
Snowden currently has no appropriate due process avenues open to him.
“The Espionage Act of 1917 makes it a crime punishable by death or imprisonment to share ‘information relating to the national defense’ with anyone who might want to do harm to the United States,” reports Politifact. “Snowden faces two counts of unauthorized communication under that law.”
President Obama has used the Espionage Act against whistleblowers, including Snowden, more than any previous administration. Hillary Clinton has said Snowden has legal protections and simply chooses not to use them. No, he doesn’t.
Former Marine Daniel Ellsberg—one of the most celebrated whistleblowers of the 20th century, whose leaking of the classified Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971 allowed Americans to see how tragically pointless the Vietnam War had become—was initially charged with the Espionage Act too. The government said Ellsberg damaged national security, and basically every other predictable charge federal officials continue to level at Snowden.
Today, Ellsberg is considered a patriot. When John Kerry criticized Snowden in 2014, the secretary of state lauded Ellsberg’s leaks as the “right way to do it.”
“In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material – and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago,” Ellsberg wrote in 2013. Even James Clapper now reluctantly admits that Snowden’s revelations forced “needed transparency.”
This column is not meant to imply that all leakers of classified information are the same or even justified. But if the government is doing something grossly wrong, and then lies about it when directly challenged—how should we treat someone who shed light on it at great personal risk?
If you believe Snowden shouldn’t have done what he did, you’re also essentially saying we should trust our government, no matter the abuse. You’re saying it would be better to still be in the dark about these NSA practices.
Americans were outraged to learn about mass surveillance because it is outrageous.
Edward Snowden is a whistleblower—the classic definition—and deserves to be treated as such by the U.S. government.
And if he’s not, no one is.