Try to imagine working for the National Security Agency (NSA) way back in 2013 and discovering that your employer was involved in nefarious acts such as eavesdropping on citizens without their knowledge.
Would you try to wake up the global community to the global surveillance programs? Or would you do nothing and keep it to yourself? We all know which option Edward Snowden chose.
At the time, Donald Trump advised that Snowden should be executed for leaking a Smorgasbord of classified intel.
Seven years later, Trump is President and now believes there is an argument that Snowden acted in the interest of all humankind. In a dramatic U-turn, Trump is now exploring a possible pardon in a move that has once again split popular opinion.
Blowing the whistle on the NSA split people into two camps. To some, he was considered a hero, a truth seeker that decided to put people before his job. To others, his handing over US secrets to journalists put troops and a nation at risk which is an act of treason. But it’s much more complicated than that.
Why should Snowden be pardoned?
In Snowden’s book, Permanent Record, he wrote about how the government used an application called XKEYSCORE to scour the internet history of average Americans. The software revealed that most users of every gender, ethnicity, race, and age had watched pornography at some point. But the one thing they all had in common was that they stored videos and pictures of their family online or their devices.
With vast amounts of information being collected on every citizen, Snowden believed that if anyone would ever get out of line, private life would be used against them.
He spoke of the struggle of not sharing his concerns with his girlfriend or making her aware that his colleagues could access every message and photo or video on her devices. By bravely bringing this to the world’s attention, many believe that Snowden is a patriot rather than a traitor and should be pardoned.
In his defence, Snowden also decided to anonymize the names in the documents to avoid endangering those involved. Infamously, he then handed over the documents to journalists to inform the public about the mass surveillance by governments on its citizens. Depending on your viewpoint, there is an argument that selflessly exposing human rights abuses is a heroic act and why he should be pardoned.
Why should Snowden not be pardoned?
Liz Cheney tweeted that Snowden is responsible for the largest and most damaging release of classified info in US history. He handed over US secrets to Russian and Chinese intelligence putting our troops and our nation at risk. Pardoning him would be unconscionable.
Fleeing to Russia with five laptops containing classified material will be seen as a betrayal of his country. By jeopardizing operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and putting lives at risk, those that have suffered from his actions will only see treasonous acts. If he had shared secrets with the Russian government, many believe he is enabling it’s cyber and influence capabilities to grow and be a threat to the US.
News that Snowden and earned over $1.2 million in speaking fees while under asylum in Russia could suggest that he is a man capitalizing on his alleged crimes, rather than being the hero or guardian of the truth. There is a clear case for a pardon and against one, which is why we have a split decision on our hands.
What would the pardon mean for Snowden, other whistle-blowers, and the intelligence community?
When flying from Hong Kong via Russia and Cuba to Ecuador, it was the US that cancelled Snowden’s passport, which left him stranded in Russia with limited options. Snowden has made no secret of his desire to return to his home country. But even if successful, he would run the risk of instantly becoming a target for right-wing patriots with a score to settle.
There is an argument that a pardon would also set a dangerous precedent for other potential whistle-blowers looking to follow in Snowden’s footsteps.
It would undermine the intelligence community and mock them in equal measure after its most important secrets were exposed for the world to see. A pardon would undoubtedly put a further strain on the relationship between the security agencies and the President. But you could argue that very little will change there.
It is widely believed that a pardon of Snowden would encourage future whistle-blowers to publicize possible corruption or violations in the US intelligence community and other government agencies. We could quickly enter a new world where whistle-blowers are offered protection and are empowered to make their employers accountable for their actions.
There is a strong argument that revealing global mass surveillance programs that took place without a warrant or reasonable suspicion by security agencies was a good thing. The revelations could be attributed to the transformation of privacy laws and the security of the devices that now handle all of our digital communications.
Donald Trump is faced with a split decision, which will cause further division whatever he decides. But maybe the decision has already been made for him.
Can the President really pardon someone who has not been convicted of any crimes? Whatever happens, we will see the emergence of binary thinking and polarized views online where everyone will be tasked with choosing from one of two sides.
Whether you see Snowden as a patriot, or a traitor will depend entirely on your worldview. Seven years later, we find ourselves in a digital world where our beliefs and thoughts are not always our own and manipulated by software that keeps users locked inside a social-validation feedback loop. Who will dare to admit that it’s much more complicated than picking a side? But that is a story for another day.