Originally published 9/18/16
With the arrival of September comes the official kickoff of Oscar season. One of the early films gaining buzz is Oliver Stone’s Snowden. Regardless of what you think of this famous director, his movie, or the subject, his project has reignited the debate Snowden first brought to the forefront in 2013 concerning privacy and government use of technology to spy on its citizens. If nothing else, Stone should be thanked for that, because the issues that Snowden represents hit at the core of this country’s values and identification.
Hero, traitor, patriot, villain, whistleblower, spy. Everyone has an opinion about Edward Snowden. Our judicial system however, has the only legally binding one, which upon further evaluation, has already vindicated him. According to a decisionlast year by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the government’s logging of phone calls of law-abiding citizens, first exposed by Snowden, was an illegal act. The ruling, an indictment on our government’s actions, casts doubt upon Snowden’s alleged violation of the Espionage Act. So lower the Trump wall and let the fortunate son come home. It’s time for a hero’s welcome.
Well, not so fast. As we all know, nothing in life is ever that simple. By taking the actions he did, Snowden put more than his behavior on trial, he put his intent into the spotlight as well. There are deep concerns in the intelligence community that he did real harm to America’s safety and international standing because he “also exposed technical details about many other classified activities, including overseas surveillance programs, secret diplomatic arrangements, and operations targeting legitimate adversaries.” And while the government may have lost one part of that argument in the Circuit Court ruling, it understands there can’t really be a ruling on the other. As a result, certain leaders want to send a message that actions such as Snowden’s violate the spirit of the law. People need to follow proper channels built into our system to fight injustices.
But what happens when those channels become marred by some of the very people in government tasked to uphold them? It’s technically the system that fails us if people such as Snowden cannot come forward trusting that the system will protect him and allow his revelations to be judged in public — or at the very least by a truly blue-ribbon panel of Americans committed to upholding our Constitution.
Understandably there are things that are best to remain private — I am not a believer in radical openness. Just as my private life should not be an open book for social media and search companies to track and share, governments need to operate with certain privacy prerogatives, and privacy is indeed a critical part of human nature and participatory democracy. But Snowden’s actions were not intent on destroying our cherished democratic institutions, rather his intent appears to be part idealism and part patriot in the spirit of what our Founding Fathers intended. Slightly naïve perhaps, but on point in terms of telling what needed to be told about the massive programs spying on good Americans across our land. There was nothing in it for Snowden — he had no fantasy of heroism, he risked his life and surrendered his freedom to tell us the truth.
When Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, he fell under a similar spotlight to Snowden’s and encountered the same government wrath. In that instance, Nixon and his plumbers went so far as to raid Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in the hope of finding information to smear his character. He wasn’t exiled however. Snowden owns that achievement alone, living his life out now in Moscow. As Ellsberg has said about Snowden, “I had the feeling that, as I suspected from the beginning, we really were kindred souls.”
Prior to the release of Stone’s new film, the majority of Americans had moved beyond Snowden, focusing instead on the privacy issues and personal rights he felt should be protected — while being fed a stunning and steady news stream of the latest violations perpetrated by private companies and the government.Snowden the movie brings it all center stage, back into the conversation. People will talk and they will question, as they should. The government meanwhile, has relentlessly continued down its path of wanting Snowden held accountable for the Pandora’s Box he opened.
Last year, the European Parliament voted to call on EU member states to drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden and grant him protection. This was not done as a slap in the face of America. It was meant more as an objective statement on what constitutes betraying or believing in your country. Would Germany be as inviting if Snowden was one of their own? Would England let bygones be bygones? It’s doubtful, yet here we are.
Here in America there is a growing chorus of voices requesting a presidential pardon. Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner of the ACLU, says,
This is the paradigmatic case for which the pardon power exists. The pardon power is not for people who committed no crime, it is for people who did — but there is overriding public interest in not enforcing the letter of the law in those cases. There is no question that Snowden violated the 1917 espionage act. But there is also no question that what he did benefited the country, as even Eric Holder has acknowledged.
Right or wrong, Snowden stood up for what he believed were a massive Santa’s list of sins against Americans. There’s a sad irony and tragic Shakespearean aspect to loving your country and all that it represents so much that the actions you take to preserve it keep you from living inside its borders ever again. Snowden however, continues to stick to his guns. In an interview earlier this year, he called out the fallacy of the government argument that “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide from government spying.” His response is that “it’s not about having nothing to hide, it’s about being you.” I couldn’t agree more. Our privacy is a fundamental aspect of who we are as people. Take that away and you destroy a building block of the human experience.
I believe we need to reconcile what Snowden did, with the reasons why he did it, and the legal opinion of it. Despite accusations to the contrary, Snowden didn’t make the country any more or less safe than it was the day before his name took over the Internet. What he did do was bring to the surface a debate this country should have started years ago. Now it’s here. What we do with it will define who we are as a nation and where we go moving forward. What does America want to be? Are we the democracy we define ourselves as or a façade of what we could and were intended to be? We must seize this moment and right the ship.
Ellsberg ultimately managed to regain a semblance of normalcy and vindication for exposing the wrongs of the Vietnam War. What does the future hold for Snowden? Snowden will wear his revelations about privacy violations perpetrated against Americans and the world like a scarlet letter for the rest of his life. Fifty years from now, however, our reflection of him may change as it did Ellsberg. To borrow a line from the Hamilton musical, history has its eyes on him. He is a most unlikely villain and his exile at this point makes little sense.
We need Snowden in America — for many good reasons. For those who see him as an enemy, we have always been taught to keep our enemies close to us and there is no logic to be found in forcing him into unsavory hands far from home. There are countless reasons why we are better off with Snowden here on American soil, and like Ellsberg, not incarcerated. Those who see him as a hero believe he is a patriot who deserves his rightful standing as a free citizen in the America he cherishes. It will be interesting to see the end result, which I believe will be significantly different than the one we see today. It is time for Edward Snowden to come home.