24 January 2014

Edward Snowden's clemency hurdles

I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker because I trust my writing more than yours!

In light of Edward Snowden's recent interview, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the roadblocks that stand in the way of clemency. I should be clear up front that I take no position on whether Edward Snowden should actually be granted clemency. Neither is this post intended to be a policy statement or value judgment about the United States' surveillance operations or capabilities. That being said, these are some of the things that I would consider if I were in a position to make a decision.

First, in a June 12, 2013 interview with the South China Morning Post:
Snowden has admitted he sought a position at Booz Allen Hamilton so he could collect proof about the US National Security Agency's secret surveillance programmes ahead of planned leaks to the media. 
"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked," he told the Post on June 12. "That is why I accepted that position about three months ago."
(Full disclosure: I work at Booz Allen). Having already collected classified documents in his previous job, he quit and took a new job specifically for the purpose of obtaining additional classified information. This is tough to reconcile with the image of a whistleblower. If the goal of a whistleblower is to "exposes misconduct, alleged dishonest or illegal activity," then (at least by his standards), he could have done that without an additional trove of classified documents.

Second, Snowden's motives seem inconsistent with his actions. If his goal was to shine a light on what he perceived as violations of Americans' civil liberties, then the documents he released were far broader than was necessary to achieve that motive. While information on the phone metadata surveillance program certainly relate to the privacy concerns of American citizens, the details of surveillance operations against valid foreign intelligence targets has no rational relationship to American citizens. On the other hand, if his goal was to address the problem of indiscriminate mass surveillance, then the details of those same surveillance operations against valid foreign intelligence targets also miss the mark. While Snowden claims that "[n]ot all spying is bad," it remains to be seen if Snowden (or friendly journalists like Glenn Greenwald) have proffered any evidence of foreign intelligence programs that they support. Snowden seems to suggest that foreign surveillance might violate international law, but I'm not aware of any international obligations that limit the foreign surveillance abilities of the United States (or any other countries' abilities to surveil Americans or other countries).

Third, in an open letter to the people of Brazil, Snowden offered to assist Brazilian senators in investigations of suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens. He said he would be willing to do so where it was "appropriate and lawful," but it's difficult to imagine a circumstance where an American citizen could assist a foreign government in investigating surveillance by the United States against that country (in exchange for asylum), and do so in an appropriate and lawful manner.

Attorney General Eric Holder has rejected clemency as an option. Perhaps the United States government has decided that the hurdles identified above are too high of a climb to overcome.
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