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Clemency for Snowden?

The year is still young, but I would say the New York Times’s editorial board has already retired the prize for the most irresponsible, unconvincing, and pernicious editorial of the year with “Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower.”

To get to the bottom line up front: The Times would like the U.S. government to offer “a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.”

Personally, the only kind of plea bargain I would like to see offered to Snowden is one that allows him to serve life in a maximum-security prison rather than face the death penalty for his treason.

Why does the Times think we should adopt a more lenient approach to one of the most damaging traitors in our nation’s history–a man who, in the words of Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”?

Because, the Times claims, Snowden’s leaks are justified on the following grounds: “The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices.”

Maybe the Times editorialists have some special information that the rest of us are not privileged to have, but I have been following this story pretty closely and I am not aware of anything that the NSA has done without the authorization of Congress, the executive branch, and the special court that oversees its activities–even if (in the case of eavesdropping on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel) the president would rather have some “deniability” about his personal responsibility.

In fact there is no evidence of the NSA exceeding its mandate and the only evidence of it doing anything wrong (such as accidentally entering the wrong phone number) was a small number of errors in its data searches which were caught and reported and corrected by its own internal audits. There is no sign of any malicious or criminal intent in any of these errors–and no evidence that the NSA has become a Big Brother listening in on everyone.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to the members of Congress, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, who has said about one of the NSA’s most controversial activities (the collection of meta-data on phone calls): “The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight.”

Even if you think that the NSA’s collection programs are excessive, it is hard to make the case that sharing the most vital secrets of the U.S. government with the news media–and probably hostile foreign governments in Beijing and Moscow, although the Times doesn’t mention this inconvenient probability–is the way to address the problem. Snowden now claims that he tried to notify a couple of superiors about his concerns; the NSA denies it. Whatever the case, there is no evidence he tried to notify the NSA’s inspector general, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or the intelligence committees of Congress. No doubt this is precisely because he knew that all of the activities he disliked were fully authorized by all three branches of government.

What we have here is not a case of “whistle-blowing,” as the Times disingenuously claims, but a case of a young, arrogant, headstrong techie with a libertarian bent and a taste for fame who has taken upon himself the responsibility of deciding which intelligence programs the U.S. government may carry out and which it may not. A true whistleblower, like Daniel Ellsberg, stays to face the consequences of his actions–he does not flee to hostile foreign capitals.

By his actions Snowden has placed the entire nation at risk. Even if terrorists and foreign enemies don’t manage to take advantage of Snowden’s disclosures to attack the U.S., the cost of repairing the damage he has caused will be steep–certainly amounting to billions of dollars because he has rendered some valuable collection programs useless.

Perhaps there is a prudential case, as an NSA investigator recently suggested, for offering Snowden amnesty in return for preventing the disclosure of even more highly classified information that he stole–but that is not what the Times is suggesting. It is instead granting its benediction to Snowden’s activities, suggesting he should be considered a hero, not a traitor. That’s a funny stance for a newspaper to take that, not so long ago, in the Valerie Plame case, was aghast at the notion of blowing any secrets–even though the Plame disclosure had an infinitesimal impact on national security compared to the Snowden disclosures.

If Snowden is allowed to get away with his crimes, it is hard to see how the intelligence apparatus of the U.S. can function. Successful intelligence, after all, is premised on secrecy–and that secrecy will not last long if every intelligence community employee feels free to disclose whatever secrets he knows simply because he disagrees with what his superiors are doing. Yet that would be the logical consequence of the Times‘s risible suggestion to rehabilitate Snowden.



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