The New York Times has called for the U.S. government to offer amnesty to Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who broke his oath to that same government and has severely damaged the work it does to keep the U.S. safe.
A tiny proportion of Snowden’s disclosures, if any at all, have concerned unequivocally illegal work by the U.S. government. Regarding the NSA’s infamous metadata program, the Times relies on a federal judge’s ruling that it is probably unconstitutional — but another federal judge has disagreed.
That metadata system is overseen by Congress and is regularly reviewed by a classified federal court. It is possible the Supreme Court will strike down the program, but the constitutional precedent from 1974’s Smith v. Maryland regarding metadata is quite clear. The Times’ favored ruling, which argues that Smith has been invalidated by technological advances, is much less convincing, and in any case has to be heard by the nation’s highest court.
The other accomplishments the Times attributes to Snowden are even less impressive: He revealed that the NSA has exploited, for the sake of intelligence gathering, many of the systems private firms use to encrypt information, a practice “damaging [to] businesses that depended on this trust.” It is a strange day when the New York Times believes breaking the law is justified — laudable, even — if it might protect the competitiveness of American businesses. Similarly, the exposure that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was less than honest with Congress about the NSA’s gathering of data on Americans is important — but this revelation doesn’t justify the gravest intelligence breach in U.S. history.
Snowden did expose several internal audits by the NSA that revealed isolated instances of mistakes and overreach, a minuscule number among the NSA’s operations — and not ongoing illegal practices. At another point, the secret court that oversees the NSA reined in the agency’s domestic work and criticized the agency for not being more honest about it. Both instances led to reforms at the NSA. If Snowden felt that those audits and reports should have been made public anyway, he could have taken them to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees rather than fleeing to Kowloon Bay and then Moscow.
What is most striking about Snowden’s leaks is the sheer amount of them that have nothing to do with Americans’ privacy at all. Snowden stole and has now helped publish documents that lay out the entirety of the U.S.’s classified budget, detail American-run intelligence programs abroad that have no effect on the privacy of those protected by our laws, and reveal the intelligence work of our allies, too. Regardless of the efficacy of the programs that may now be halted, exposing reams of data on the work of U.S. intelligence agencies sets their work back years, and leaves America less safe.
Snowden hasn’t exposed clearly illegal work by the U.S. government that he couldn’t have shed light on or halted any other way. (He claims to have spoken to NSA superiors, which they deny, and that is just one of the possible avenues.) He should therefore be punished like anyone else who breaks his oath to keep classified information secret.
Maintaining otherwise sets a dangerous precedent for protecting future leakers on the grounds that they expose something that is, say, merely politically unpopular. Snowden has done huge damage to the work of his country’s security services — now and in the future — and is hiding from the due punishment by seeking refuge in a hostile foreign country that benefits from the fallout of his work. This sounds more like a defector than a whistleblower.