Opinion
Get Opinion in your inbox -- sign up for our weekly newsletter
Opinion Opinion L.A.

Edward Snowden: Neither a hero nor a traitor

The debate over whether Edward Snowden should receive leniency from the federal government -- revived by a New Year's Day editorial in The New York Times --  tracks the larger debate over Snowden encapsulated in the question: "Hero or traitor?" In other words, it's mostly a debate between those who valorize Snowden and those who despise him. (Here's an example of a deliciously nasty attack on him.)

That divide tracks a larger polarization over Snowden and his revelations, between those who believe that all of Snowden's revelations are defensible (even those that had nothing to do with invasions of Americans' privacy) and those, including President Obama, who argue that Snowden had no reason to go public.

Trite as it sounds, the truth lies in the middle. As The L.A. Times pointed out in an editorial in August:

"Snowden's disclosures have inspired an overdue debate that was previously impossible because of the cloak of government secrecy that shrouded the surveillance programs. Without his revelation to the Guardian that the U.S. government was scooping up reams of information about the phone calls of virtually every American, there wouldn't have been a close vote in the House of Representatives about defunding that program, nor would the program's defenders be announcing their willingness to accept modifications.”

But in the same editorial The Times noted that “not all of his revelations involved the collection of personal information about Americans.  Snowden also gave the Guardian a document showing that the NSA had intercepted the communications of then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a Group of 20 summit in London in 2009. And Snowden revealed in an interview the specific dates and the IP addresses of computers in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland that had been hacked by the NSA over four years. Disclosing intelligence operations directed at foreign countries does nothing to protect Americans' privacy, and it doesn't seem to us like whistle-blowing.”

(Here’s a longer list of Snowden disclosures that didn’t affect Americans’ privacy. And a column by Fred Kaplan that raises additional arguments against clemency.)

The L.A. Times editorial raised another problem with clemency for Snowden: that it would violate the principle “that those who engage in civil disobedience should be prepared to accept some legal consequences for their actions. That principle assures that individuals will think seriously, as they should, about whether lawbreaking is justified by a higher cause.” This concern gets short shrift from a lot of Snowden’s most ardent defenders.

But there’s a reason why political philosophers and ethicists have struggled with civil disobedience. Too accommodating an acceptance of the concept would empower people with sincere beliefs to engage in lawbreaking without consequences. I suspect that a lot of people who would support clemency for Snowden would object if protesters who blocked an abortion clinic were given a free pass.

Snowden is neither a hero nor a traitor. Some, but not all, of his revelations inspired a necessary debate that had been pre-empted by an overly secretive executive branch and a compliant Congress. Others are harder to justify. And it’s hyperbole to argue, as The New York Times does in its editorial, that Snowden’s revelations prove that “government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law.” 

That said, Snowden may be entitled to leniency if and when he returns to this country to answer the charges against him. But he has to take the first step.

ALSO:

Hands off our laptops

The widow of 'Downton Abbey'

It's time to rethink health insurance

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • The NSA vs. the Constitution

    The NSA vs. the Constitution

    The Supreme Court should bring the 4th Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches into the digital age.

  • Edward Snowden: Hero or criminal?

    Edward Snowden: Hero or criminal?

    He revealed the NSA's secret surveillance program. Now he may face prosecution.

  • NSA's metadata program: End it, don't mend it

    NSA's metadata program: End it, don't mend it

    The NSA's bulk metadata collection program intrudes on the privacy of virtually every American; Congress must set stricter limits.

  • A 21st century right to privacy

    A 21st century right to privacy

    The 'reasonable expectation of privacy' rule formulated by the Supreme Court in 1979 makes no sense today.

  • Goodbye to Robert E. Lee

    Goodbye to Robert E. Lee

    To some people, even 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee remains a symbol of honor, chivalry and courage; his memory conjures the Old South, a lost cause and a more romantic era. That's why his name remains on schools, highways and monuments across the country,...

  • How Greek was Alexander the Great?

    How Greek was Alexander the Great?

    Alexander the Great was the first global celebrity: a hero, a superman and, so he believed, a god. Not only did he rule most of the known world at the time of his death in 323 BC, he also became a model of paranoid absolutism for all the Caesars and Kaisers and czars to come.

Comments
Loading