When he announced Tuesday that he would sign a bill ending the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records and making other reforms in surveillance laws, President Obama praised Congress — and himself.
“For the past 18 months, I have called for reforms that better safeguard the privacy and civil liberties of the American people while ensuring our national security officials retain tools important to keeping Americans safe,” Obama said. “That is why, today, I welcome the Senate’s passage of the USA Freedom Act.”
Unacknowledged by the president was the man who can fairly be called the ultimate author of this legislation: former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been charged with violating the Espionage Act and is now living in exile in Russia.
Without Snowden’s unauthorized disclosures two years ago, neither the public nor many members of Congress would have known that the government, acting under a strained interpretation of the Patriot Act, was vacuuming up and storing millions of Americans’ telephone records. That program will end after a six-month transition period under the bill signed by Obama.
That legislation also imposes a measure of transparency on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which secretly ratified the government’s implausible legal justification for the dragnet. (Last month, that rationale was rejected by a federal appeals court in New York.) From now on, opinions of the surveillance court will be declassified “to the greatest extent practicable.”
If the American people have Snowden to thank for these reforms — and they do — is it fair to prosecute him for violating laws against the release of classified information? More than 167,000 Americans say no and have signed a petition to the White House demanding that Obama grant him a “full, free, and absolute pardon.”
Yet there are serious arguments against a pardon. One is that, in a society of laws, someone who engages in civil disobedience in a higher cause should be prepared to accept the consequences. A stronger objection, in our view, is that Snowden didn’t limit his disclosures to information about violations of Americans’ privacy. He divulged other sensitive information about traditional foreign intelligence activities, including 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. A government contractor who discloses details of U.S. spying on another country is not most Americans’ idea of a whistleblower.
A pardon for Snowden now would be premature. But if he were to return to this country to face the charges against him, the fact that he revealed the existence of a program that has now been repudiated by all three branches of government would constitute a strong argument for leniency. Snowden should come home and make that case.