The news media’s silence while some of its boldest sources are prosecuted or jailed is something I’ve been protesting for some time, so naturally I was pleased when the New York Times, in an eloquent editorial on New Year’s Day, urged the White House to show leniency toward Edward Snowden. He’s the former contract worker for the National Security Agency, whose leaks continue to expose the NSA’s monumental, intrusive and illegal monitoring of civilian communications here and abroad.
The Times recounted the broad impact of Snowden’s defiance, including widespread outrage, critical court rulings, internal investigations and even a grudging nod from the White House. President Obama nonetheless invited him to return from asylum in Russia to face whatever justice the administration is currently offering, the president apparently hoping that Snowden wasn’t paying attention when fellow whistleblower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, having shared similarly dirty laundry via WikiLeaks, was manhandled and held in solitary for nearly a year and finally sentenced to 35 years by a military tribunal.
Who could turn that down?
The Times argued that Snowden deserves either clemency or some minimum-punishment plea bargain, and concluded: “When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.”
The Times never said much on Manning’s behalf. Nor has it opined in favor of Manning’s helper, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who’s languishing in a kind of house arrest in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
For his part, Assange is ignored — when he’s not reviled — by the same news organizations to whom he fed truthful and explosive information. The received wisdom among elite media, near as I can tell, is that he’s a weirdo and an egomaniac and therefore earned his current captivity, ensured by a monthslong police siege outside the embassy in Knightsbridge that’s supposedly intended to get him to return to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual misconduct, murky stuff with which he has never been charged.
So amid this practice of source abandonment, the Times’ plea is welcome.
But in several regards, the pro-Snowden case is troubling. It doesn’t go nearly far enough toward ensuring a fair shake for whistleblowers with vital stories to tell.
First, the idea that Snowden should get a break because his “disclosures have inspired an overdue debate,” as the Los Angeles Times suggested, is a curious notion. Debate? Lots of terrible things provoke discussion. After all, 9/11 triggered a major public debate over Islamist terrorism, and the Newtown school massacre got people talking about guns. That doesn’t mean the perpetrators of either one deserve our thanks.
What Snowden did was put before the public information about major government misconduct that belonged in the public domain — misconduct that constitutes, in my view, the most dangerous and far-reaching power grab of the Information Age. And he embarrassed the administration into reluctantly addressing questionable and invasive practices, which officials had lied about. That’s not inspiring a debate; that’s calling government to account.
Second, it’s troubling that the news media haven’t owned up to their own complicity in the affair. Snowden could do nothing without them. If they truly want to defend him, they should start by acknowledging that they stand alongside him as public servants.
Finally, and most egregiously, I’m troubled by the whole thrust of the appeal to the conscience of the administration. What are we doing, in 21st-century America, pleading for mercy from the sovereign? Don’t we have a system of laws? Why must we beg the king’s ministers for clemency?
The unstated premise of the New York Times editorial is that Snowden’s fate is in the hands of the state’s prosecutors. Why is that? The reason is that our courts have been emasculated by laws that prevent them from actually administering justice in cases like his.
Elsewhere, if civil servants violate secrecy rules by disclosing information about what they believe is criminality by officialdom, they can argue in court that their actions served a greater public benefit. And judges can do exactly what they’re supposed to do: Exercise judgment, and decide whether to pardon or punish the offenders.
I don’t know why our laws keep the courts from doing this job. And while I welcome the appeal on Snowden’s behalf from a powerful news organization, he deserves a sturdier and more muscular defense, something equal to the enormity of the wrongdoing we’re all indebted to him for exposing, something that helps make the country safe for others with stories we need to hear.
Edward Wasserman is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote this article for the Miami Herald.