Petraeus and Snowden: Both Leakers of Classified Material, Same Punishment?

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

W.J. Astore

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).

Irony of ironies: The "ascetic" Petraeus bonded with Broadwell as they ran six-minute miles

Petraeus and Broadwell: “All In”

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?

Update (3/5/15): 

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.

12 thoughts on “Petraeus and Snowden: Both Leakers of Classified Material, Same Punishment?

  1. The hypocrisy of our government. Selective enforcement, the curse of Moorestown, writ large on the national scene.

  2. I am grateful you pointed out the similarities between the two cases. I also read both news articles but the connection didn’t occur to me. The Pentagon Papers release helped to bring down the curtain on stupid and awful US international policy in a prior era. I think the documents released by Snowden show even more egregious governmental missteps which inflict far more consequential harm to democracy, liberty, and national standards of morality. I also think Snowden is unlikely to receive anything remotely receiving justice because I expect the government to prevent submission of evidence a jury might find exculpatory, claiming necessary secrets for reasons of national security privilege. But then I am biased in that I hold out little hope the citizens of America are capable of requiring elected officials to perform their duties so as to best insure the perpetuation of a free democratic society diligently in pursuit of the highest moral standards.

  3. Edward Snowden, if you are reading this, heed me: DON’T DO IT!! Don’t accept ANY “deal” to return here. There’s no way you would receive a “fair trial.” My hope for you is asylum in a neutral country (one that, unlike supposedly humane Sweden, doesn’t cower before Big Bully USA) where you will have the necessary security against would-be kidnappers and where you can be reunited with loved ones permanently.

    Quick note to “lsnrchrd1”: Pray, can you give us one example of how the US Establishment learned anything from the Vietnam experience that AVOIDED future stupid foreign policy decisions??? I am most curious!

    • No, greglaxer, I cannot provide even one example of any lesson learned in Vietnam which prevented subsequent stupid foreign policy decisions. Which is the obvious reason why it never occurred to me to state such a claim. In all fairness to the many people involved in these decision chains, I cannot prove but confidently expect there is some number that is not responsible for signing off on the stupid ones. I also have no way of knowing how many stupid ideas were not advanced thanks to smart people, fortuitous timing, a serendipitousy correct decision made by somebody incompetent for his/her position who proved the Peter Principle, etc. My principal, if unstated, intended assertion is that public opposition to the Vietnam War played a significant role in bringing the curtain down on that misadventure.

      Public opposition to similar misadventure in the oil regions and elsewhere beginning with the Reagan administration (I don’t absolve Carter administration State Dept/CIA foreign meddling, either; but it was relatively publicly offscreen in comparison with Reagan, Bush41, Clinton, Bush43, Obama executive actions) of sufficient scale to leash the dog’s of war has not been and still is not present, thanks largely I think to lack of a draft and in-theater support functions auctioned off to private mercenaries — two more cogs removed from the wheel of a democratic society.

      Lack of sunlight, though, resulting from Executive abrogation of governmental privacy definitions/rights, is half the other cogs on the wheel. Campaign finance laws/expanded corporate rights are almost all the remaining cogs. There are very few cogs remaining to accomplish the work of democracy. Democracy requires popular exercise of will to establish and maintain. Americans placidly watch the gear as it’s increasingly stripped of its ability to accomplish its work.

      • Very good reply. Yes, I think we’re a nation watching the gears of impending collapse of the American Empire coming apart in super-slow-motion, like the fascination of the proverbial slow-motion train wreck. Well, then again, very few of us are actually watching that. The others are watching the new season of “House of Cards” or still bingeing on “Game of Thrones.” The latter I have no interest in, the former I treat pretty well as a “documentary” on D.C. Inside Politics! [insert laughing emoticon here!]

  4. There is another instructive parallel – Patraeus and Broadwell vs. Clinton and Lewinsky. Patraeus hailed as a hero after trading state secrets for sex, Clinton put up for impeachment for a hand job in the Oval office. “Justice for all” is in the eye of the political expedience of the beholder.

    • ‘Mr.contrary perspective’:
      As a significant part of our job MFC tries to correct significant errors made by respondents to blog items. This is an increasingly serious problem that we have noticed in our review of thousands of replys to blog postings. We believe it is related to American’s inclination to “shoot from the hip” rather than develop a sound, and thoughtful response to what they have read and wish to comment on.. We, at MFC, are all for commenting but want to assure ‘accuracy’ in commets.

      We have filed a report in our ‘one word’ error list on your response to the article by Prof. Astore. Indeed Pres.
      Clinton did NOT get a “hand job” from Monica Lewinsky! It was a “blow” job. This may sound like nit picking to you but to the U.S. congress who spent millions of tax payer dollars on investigating this egregious act the difference did matter a great deal. remember, words have meaning!

      • Keep up your good work, MFC, the Republic will be a better place for it. I think your project is perfect for crowdfunding (perhaps you already utilize some form of this monetization resource), and best of luck in future with your endeavor.

      • Dear “lsnrchrd1”: I’m afraid you’ve been hoodwinked. I will bet you dollars to doughnuts “Media Fact Checker” is a lone wingnut Internet Troll and not any kind of real organization. He/she also needs to learn to spell or at least type a whole lot better!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s