The Agenda

The Snowden Clemency Debate

Last week, Fred Kaplan, the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a frequent Slate contributor, argued that though Edward Snowden might have merited lenient treatment for disclosing national security secrets that related to domestic surveillance, Snowden in fact did much more than that:

The documents that he gave the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald have, so far, furnished stories about the NSA’s interception of email traffic, mobile phone calls, and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s northwest territories; about an operation to gauge the loyalties of CIA recruits in Pakistan; about NSA email intercepts to assist intelligence assessments of what’s going on inside Iran; about NSA surveillance of cellphone calls “worldwide,” an effort that (in the Post’s words) “allows it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.” In his first interview with the South China Morning Post, Snowden revealed that the NSA routinely hacks into hundreds of computers in China and Hong Kong.

These operations have nothing to do with domestic surveillance or even spying on allies. They are not illegal, improper, or (in the context of 21st-century international politics) immoral. Exposing such operations has nothing to do with “whistle-blowing.”

More recently, Slate’s David Weigel interviewed former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, an unorthodox Democrat who is emerging as a serious candidate for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination on the subject of Snowden’s future:

David Weigel: You start off every morning at 4 a.m. or so, reading national news, so I assume you read the New York Times editorial calling for clemency for Edward Snowden. Do you agree with the Times? Would you grant clemency?

Brian Schweitzer: If Edward Snowden is a criminal, then so are a lot of people that are working within the CIA and the NSA who have been spying illegally on American citizens. They ought to grant Snowden clemency. Now, let me say this: Shame on us if we had a person working for a private contractor, without a high school diploma, who was in possession of our most delicate secrets. We look like Keystone Kops! But I don’t have any problem with the NSA and their mission of collecting information on foreign leaders. They spy on us; we spy on them. I’ve got a real big problem with American neighbors spying on American neighbors.

Schweitzer is a shrewd politician, and one assumes that he has given his position on Snowden some thought. He appears to have concluded that defending Snowden will strengthen his civil libertarian bona fides, and that Kaplan’s contention that Snowden’s revelations materially damaged America’s ability to achieve legitimate foreign policy objectives is not enough to merit serious punishment. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another future presidential contender, has called for lenient treatment of Snowden, if not clemency. There are many smart people who agree with Kaplan on the one hand and Schweitzer on the other, and though I can’t imagine that the Obama administration will embrace the idea of lenient punishment or clemency, there are plenty of mainstream Democrats who favor it. I’m going to interview two very smart people on this subject on Friday, and I’ll be sure to report back.