According to the U.S. intelligence community, Edward Snowden is the most dangerous leaker in American history. The New York Times and The Guardian, however, on Thursday offered a second opinion. In strongly worded editorials, the two newspapers urged President Obama to give the 30-year-old former NSA contractor clemency.
Despite the editorials and a campaign from civil-liberties groups, it’s unlikely the White House or the intelligence community will support letting Snowden off the hook.
At his end-of-the-year press conference last month, Obama declined to answer a question about clemency. But as recently as November, top White House officials said the White House was not considering clemency for Snowden. The chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees have also said clemency should be ruled out for Snowden.
In an interview Thursday, Michael Hayden, who served as NSA director and CIA director under the last administration, called the suggestion of clemency for Snowden “outrageous.” He predicted any efforts to grant Snowden clemency would be met with significant resistance from U.S. intelligence officials. He pointed to the campaign on behalf of Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli spy who stole secrets for the Jewish state in the early 1980s when he worked as an analyst for the U.S. Navy. “There is a lot of push to give clemency for Jonathan Pollard, who did far less damage than Snowden and the U.S. intelligence community has been adamant against clemency for Pollard,” Hayden said. He added that giving clemency to Snowden would send the message to future leakers: “If you are going to do this, make sure you steal enough secrets to bargain for clemency.”
In June, the Justice Department charged Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act and one count of stealing government property. When the charges were first filed, Snowden was in Hong Kong, but the local government refused to send Snowden back to the United States and allowed him to travel to Moscow where he currently resides.
Back then many in the intelligence community had assumed the Chinese government and the Russian government would have access to Snowden’s full cache of secrets. Snowden himself said he traveled to Hong Kong and later Moscow with classified NSA laptop computers.
In recent months, however, the Obama administration is less sure that all of Snowden’s secrets have made their way to Beijing or Moscow. Despite months of investigation, the U.S. government still does not know exactly which files are in Snowden’s possession (as opposed to the classified websites he visited while posing as a senior intelligence manager) and how much beyond what has publicly been disclosed has been obtained by foreign intelligence services.
Rick Ledgett, the NSA official in charge of the damage assessment of the Snowden leak, told CBS News' 60 Minutes in an interview broadcast last month that he was still trying to figure out how much damage the leaks have done and how much they could do in the future. But Ledgett also told 60 Minutes that he would be open to “having a conversation” about granting Snowden clemency in exchange for verifiable assurances that all of the data he stole would be secured.
At the heart of the issue is a file, first reported by The Daily Beast, Snowden says he controls that would expose far more secrets if anything happened to him.
For The New York Times and The Guardian, the case for Snowden’s clemency is that his disclosures have benefitted the American people. “Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear, and flight,” the Times editorial said.
Snowden’s initial leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post exposed the existence of a secret interpretation of a U.S. government program to collect and store call records from American telecommunications companies. Snowden has also disclosed programs whereby the NSA worked closely with other Internet companies to search their records. While the U.S. government has defended these programs as invaluable to stopping terrorist attacks, the panel appointed by President Obama to review them recommended a third-party store the phone records known as metadata and suggested a number of other reforms. A U.S. district court judge has also ruled that the collection of such metadata was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
But Snowden has also leaked details of U.S. intelligence collection that deal solely with U.S. spying of foreign targets such as eavesdropping on the phone of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Snowden in June also revealed the specific computers and dates of attacks on computer systems in China to the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong.
In October, 60 Minutes broadcast an interview with former deputy CIA director Mike Morell in which he said the most damaging Snowden leak was disclosing the intelligence community’s black budget. Morell said the black budget leak was very helpful to U.S. adversaries because America’s adversaries “could focus their counterintelligence efforts on those places where we’re being successful. And not have to worry as much about those places where we’re not being successful.”
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists says it’s just too early.
“The question of amnesty seems premature because the disclosures that Snowden initiated are not finished yet. Their long-term consequences, for good and for ill, are not yet clear,” he said. “Snowden deserves credit for elevating public discussion of privacy issues. But he also needs to take responsibility for the adverse effects of his actions on U.S. intelligence capabilities and foreign relations.”