Six months after the Edward Snowden affair began, public figures previously affiliated with the University have publicly expressed their opinions on Snowden’s clemency.
Former Dean of the Wilson School and former Director of Policy Planning at the US Department of State Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 generated controversy by tweeting that she supported clemency for Edward Snowden, the contractor who revealed National Security Agency secrets in a series of leaks, on Jan. 2. The post stated, “I agree with @nytimes on Snowden. ʻEdward Snowden, Whistle-Blower’” and linked to an article published by the New York Times Editorial Board on Jan. 1.
“It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community,” the editorial reads.
The same day as Slaughter’s tweet, United States Representative and former Assistant Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Rush Holt, who represents the 12th Congressional District of central New Jersey, called for Snowden’s prosecution with leniency in an MSNBC interview.
Slaughter declined to comment.
According to Holt, Snowden’s actions have fostered a national public debate regarding Congress’s inadequate oversight of the actions of the National Security Agency.
“I know the NSA and the intelligence community well enough to know that without breaking the law, as he did, most of this would never have come to light,” Holt said. “In any court, you need to balance the facts of the law-breaking against the damage that’s done and against the benefit that comes to society.”
However, assistant professor of politics Rahul Sagar called Snowden’s actions inappropriate. He said that individuals should only disclose classified information if they are certain that it reveals severe or grave wrongdoing. The fact that many judges, members of Congress and others have disagreed with Snowden’s assessment of the NSA revelations shows he should not have leaked the data, Sagar noted.
“He was mistaken and endangered national security by revealing what he revealed, and it was done with a great deal of ideological fervor and conviction — so he was concerned more with what he thought was right or wrong, and not with what might be right or wrong for America more generally,” he said.
Director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy Steven Aftergood said he expects the calls for clemency to go ignored. He defined clemency as “an act of grace” that is “extremely unusual.”
“I don’t think that campaigns either by newspaper editorial boards or, in the case of The Guardian, by foreign publications make it more likely,” he said. “I can’t think of an example where popular clamor for clemency has produced that result.”
Other experts also thought it was unlikely that Snowden would be granted clemency.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult for the government in general, and especially this administration, to basically let Edward Snowden off with you know, nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Whatever one thinks of the merits of what Snowden did, it’s pretty clear he broke the law,” American University professor of law and Associate Dean for Scholarship Stephen Vladeck said.
Sagar explained that offering clemency and allowing Snowden reentry into the United States would send a very bad signal.
“It tells every other potential whistleblower in the future, ʻTake as much information as you can, leave the United States, and threaten to reveal as much information as you can possibly reveal at whatever cost to the country, and use that as a bargaining chip.’ And I think that it would set a terrible example, and the government recognizes it would set a terrible example,” he said.
There is no obvious precedent for granting clemency given the lack of previous cases of this scale, Sagar said, but the most similar case, regarding the WikiLeaks affair, concluded with a “stiff sentence” for Chelsea Manning.
On the other hand, Vladeck predicted the government will strike a deal with Snowden that includes imprisonment and strict supervision upon his release in exchange for control over the information he accessed. Vladeck said such a proposal might arise late in Obama’s presidency.
Aftergood said this proposal is unrealistic because Snowden already gave the NSA files to journalists who can use the information at their discretion.
Ultimately, Snowden’s fate largely depends on how the courts rule once all of Snowden’s information is brought to light, Aftergood said.
“The picture would change dramatically if the judicial system found these programs unconstitutional,” he said. “On the other hand, if the steady stream of disclosures by Snowden ended up crippling the National Security Agency, that would tilt the evaluation in the opposite direction.”
The calls for clemency have raised the question of how to legally protect those in the intelligence community, who are not covered under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Holt has authored legislation to extend whistleblower protection to those in surveillance “because it’s even harder in the intelligence world for waste, fraud, abuse, to come to light, than it is in other parts of the government”.
However, he said his bill is not moving in Congress.
Others question whether changing the whistleblower laws is even desirable. Sagar said whistleblower laws would not work in practice because intelligence agencies are not allowed to disclose the details of their operations in courts.
Rather, he suggested that true whistleblowers act within the current legal system.
“When someone has nothing to fear, they should be willing to break the law because they know they’ve revealed something truly wrongful, and so they don’t need the protection of the law as such,” he explained. “And of course, governments on their side need to be equally careful. It would be suicidal for them to prosecute someone who’s revealing wrongdoing, and most governments try not to do that.”
Despite all the media attention and speculation surrounding Snowden’s fate, Holt said that the most important consideration is the issue brought to light by the information he leaked.
“We can miss the whole point here if we debate Snowden’s culpability, his motivation, his actions. We don’t actually know everything he’s done,” Holt said. “I think there’s a bigger issue here, which is, what are the people going to do about government excesses? And I would say it’s a good thing that the people now have a chance to learn about these excesses.”