Snowden provided a valuable service in beginning the debate on the appropriateness of mass surveillance. Although many appreciate what he exposed, we can’t have a situation where government employees leak classified information whenever they see fit.
The senate recently confirmed the nomination of Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s first choice for CIA director, by a vote of 66-32. Pompeo holds what might be described as controversial views on certain issues affecting national security—he is a strong proponent of bringing back mass surveillance that existed before Edward Snowden’s leaks and wants to abolish reforms that curbed the power of the NSA. Unsurprisingly, Pompeo has repeatedly referred to Snowden as a traitor and has called for his execution. Although Snowden remains a polarizing figure even today, it is clear that his revelations cannot be ignored as they revealed the disconcerting fact that the government abused its powers to spy on its own citizens and thus violated their individual rights. Despite this, however, Snowden was careless in disseminating classified information and his actions put national security at risk.
Thus, a question arises that can’t be answered on the basis of political ideologies because it transcends partisanship and forces us to think about the trade-off between national security and individual liberty: Is Edward Snowden a traitor or a hero? Well, the answer is both. Snowden did the right thing in the wrong way.
Four years on, Snowden’s revelations about the NSA surveillance programs still impact the day-to-day workings of the government. Snowden downloaded and then leaked thousands of documents from the government’s servers. According to the leaks, the government possessed the power to intercept the messages as well as access the metadata—the “data about the data”—of American citizens. Snowden’s motivation to do so stemmed from a belief that the people have a right to know when their civil liberties are being compromised in the name of national security. To a degree, he was right—the government having unregulated access to the information of its private citizens is dangerous and seriously infringes on the idea of personal privacy.
His actions weren’t inconsequential either—as a direct result of Snowden’s revelations, the government passed the USA Freedom Act, which passed with an overwhelming majority in both the house and the senate. The act replaced the Patriot Act and significantly limited the surveillance powers of the NSA. Under the act, bulk collection of user data has been replaced with a “specific selection term,” which means that the government has to specify “an individual, account, or personal device” when collecting data.
Right after Snowden’s revelations, the Republican National Committee almost unanimously claimed that “blanket surveillance of Internet activity, phone records and correspondence of any person residing in the U.S is prohibited by law” and encouraged lawmakers to “immediately take action to halt current unconstitutional surveillance programs and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s collection programs.”
The reality of today, however, appears to be radically different— Pompeo has explicitly stated that he wants to overturn the USA Freedom act, give additional powers to the NSA and create a searchable database that combines metadata with “financial and lifestyle information” of U.S citizens. Pompeo was confirmed with an overwhelming republican majority; the only republican to vote against his nomination was Senator Rand Paul. It is a rather unfortunate fact that the GOP today has forgotten about privacy rights and is willing to accept and be a part of a government that spies on its own citizens. In a sense, Pompeo’s confirmation almost feels like a step back from the government’s efforts to limit mass surveillance and nullifies any positive impact Snowden’s leaks might have had.
Leaks, such as the ones made by Snowden, often bring forward truths or lies that the government holds from the public and have been important historically as well as politically. For example, The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which led to the escalation of the Vietnam war and gave President Johnson the power to use conventional military forces in southeast Asia, was based on omissions regarding Vietnamese strikes that were not disclosed to the congress. The government failed to make an informed decision and lied about its motivations for the war. When the government falsifies the information it presents to the public, acts without its consent and, in some cases, acts against its interests, the public has a right to know. Whistleblowers, then, serve an essential function of exposing the illegality of the organizations they are a part of.
While it is important for the public to be aware of the actions of its government, the problem arises when leakers like Snowden take morality into their own hands. Although he claims that he only downloaded documents he believed would benefit the public, Snowden’s dissemination of the information—primarily to journalists at The Guardian, The Washington Post and New York Times—was irresponsible as he handed over state secrets to journalists who exercised their own judgement in leaking them to the public. Indeed, The New York Times published the name of a NSA employee as well as that of a target of one of the NSA programs and a U.S house committee found that he “handed over secrets that protect American troops overseas and secrets that provide vital defenses against terrorists and nation-states.” Snowden had the option of pursuing other avenues instead of taking such negligent steps: he could have gone to the Congress or enrolled in the Whistleblower Protection Program with his knowledge of NSA surveillance programs.
There is no doubt that what Snowden did was illegal and he should be given a fair trial for his actions. At the same time, he did perform his civic duty by informing the public of the government’s abuse of power. Eric Holder, former U.S attorney general, perhaps put it best when he said that while what Snowden did was “illegal and harmed American interests,” he actually “performed a public service raising the debate that we engage in and by the changes that we made.”
Edward Snowden has been charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 (the same act that was used to charge Daniel Ellsberg and convict Chelsea Manning) and has been granted asylum in Russia till 2020. With the new administration in place, however, his future seems uncertain: there are reports of the Russian administration turning him over to the U.S to “curry favor” with President Trump, who shares Pompeo’s judgement of Snowden. While calls for his execution may seem extreme, it is important to consider Snowden’s contributions when evaluating him. Despite the labels we may assign him, Snowden should be seen and tried as an American citizen who did the right thing in the wrong way.
Dev Pant is a student at the University of Texas at Austin.