Two news items this morning caught my eye. The first involves Edward Snowden, the security contractor who revealed massive (and ongoing) spying by the National Security Agency (NSA), much of it illegal. Snowden says he will consider returning to the United States if he is given a fair trial (he is currently in Russia, where he’s been granted asylum and a residency permit for three years).
Watching the Citizenfour documentary (which I recommend highly), it’s apparent that Snowden revealed the sweeping extent of the NSA’s spying not out of malice, not for money, and not out of disloyalty, but rather because he wanted to serve the people by shedding light on the dangerous activities of powerful governmental agencies. Snowden, in short, was motivated by patriotism. He saw how power was corrupting governmental agencies like the NSA, he recognized the dangers of that power to democracy, and he acted to warn the people of the possibility of this power ending in tyranny.
If he returns to the USA, how should he be punished? May I suggest that he receive the same penalty as General David Petraeus, who also leaked highly classified information? That penalty would be two years’ probation and a $40,000 fine.
Actually, that penalty wouldn’t be fair to Snowden, since Petraeus’s motivation for leaking classified information was personal. According to the New York Times, Petraeus shared his “black book” notes, much of the content highly classified, freely to Paula Broadwell, his lover and biographer. He apparently did so in order that she could write a more glowing account of his life. It’s also possible that this was part of the seduction process between the two: the sharing of those “sexy,” highly classified notes in exchange for further intimacies exchanged between the sheets (or under the desk).
So, Paula Broadwell gained access to “classified notes about official meetings, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and the names of covert officers.” Later, Petraeus lied to the FBI about the sharing of those notes. And for these transgressions, he remains at liberty, with a lucrative deal at a private equity firm, teaching at Harvard University and walking the halls of power as an ascetic “hero” of the Surge in Iraq (2007).
Meanwhile, Snowden, who has been very careful not to compromise covert assets, remains in exile, vilified by many as a traitor to his country.
That’s the American moment for you. A general with powerful friends gets a slap on the wrist for leaking highly classified material to his mistress and lying about it to the FBI, and a young patriot who acts to shed light on the growing power of governmental agencies to spy on the people and to violate their liberties is hounded into exile and denounced as a traitor.
And justice for all, America?
Glenn Greenwald notes that Snowden’s desire to return to the U.S. is nothing new (and not news). The main obstacle is that U.S. law prohibits Snowden from using the defense that the documents/information he leaked should never have been classified to begin with. In other words, in a democracy, government should be transparent and accountable to the people, rather than being shrouded in secrecy and unaccountable to the people. Imagine that!
Greenwald’s article, of course, changes nothing that I wrote above about the two-track justice system in the U.S. If only Snowden had been a military general and ex-chief of the CIA before he became a whistleblower! But, sadly, he was just a young man inspired by idealism and fired up about the dangers of the total surveillance state.
Idealism driven by concerns about the overweening powers of the national security state: We can’t have that in America. Hang Snowden! Opportunism and deceit by a powerful man who ran a key component of that state (the CIA) and who should definitely have known better about violating security and lying to investigators? Well, that’s OK, “hero” Petraeus. Pay a token fine — and here’s your “Get out of jail free” card.