WASHINGTON – To the prosecutors pursuing him, Edward Snowden has committed espionage by divulging national secrets. But the growing backlash against government surveillance has spurred a spirited debate about whether he should be forgiven.
The whistleblower-versus-traitor argument has taken on a new dimension with recent moves to curtail the programs that Snowden revealed. A federal judge ruled that one program was probably unconstitutional, technology companies are demanding changes, lawmakers are considering restrictions, and even a White House panel urged modifications.
If the programs are so debatable, advocates for Snowden argue, he should not be punished for bringing them to light.
“I absolutely think the tide has changed for Snowden,” said Jesselyn Radack, a legal adviser to Snowden and a lawyer with the Government Accountability Project. “All of these things taken together counsel in favor of some sort of amnesty.”
The call for leniency, proposed by a National Security Agency official, advanced by the American Civil Liberties Union and fueled by liberal newspaper editorial pages, has made little headway in the White House or the U.S. Justice Department, which both reject it out of hand.
Nor has it been persuasive to officials in the national security establishment, who warn that letting Snowden off the hook would set a dangerous precedent.
“Bottom line for me is that he is responsible for the most damaging leaks in U.S. intelligence history,” said John McLaughlin, a former acting CIA director. Snowden, who worked as an NSA contractor, “is a traitor and no way a whistleblower,” McLaughlin added, and “represents only callow arrogance.”
Michael V. Hayden, who led an expansion of surveillance as the security agency’s director after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said clemency would be “outrageous on its face.”
“This is the most destructive hemorrhaging of American secrets in the history of the republic,” he said, “and Snowden’s cavalier dismissal of the consequences of his actions looks like depraved indifference at best.”
As the debate plays out, Snowden watches from his refuge in Moscow, where he fled in 2013 after turning over classified documents to journalists from the Guardian and the Washington Post.
Inside the White House and the Justice Department, suggestions of leniency have been met with opposition. The administration has made no move to reach out to negotiate a deal and makes it clear that it has no plans to do so.
Under the Espionage Act, there is no whistleblower defense that would allow Snowden to argue his innocence because he was justified in exposing wrongdoing.
“The irony is the Obama administration welcomes the debate but condemns the man who sparked the debate,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. “The debate would never have happened but for Edward Snowden.”