Five Reasons Obama Should Pardon Edward Snowden On His Last Day In Office

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Last week, we delivered 1.1 million signatures to President Obama from people who believe that Edward Snowden deserves a pardon for alerting the public to the dangerous powers our government had assumed in secret. Here are just a few of the reasons a pardon for Snowden would be good for the country, and the world. 

1. His disclosures led to historic surveillance reforms originating with all three branches of government, including the first law reining in the National Security Agency since 1978. 

As the heads of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch observed in a New York Times op-ed calling on President Obama to pardon Snowden: 

Mr. Snowden’s whistle-blowing prompted reactions across the government. Courts found the government wrong to use Section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify mass phone data collection. Congress replaced that law with the USA Freedom Act, improving transparency about government surveillance and limiting government power to collect certain records. The president appointed an independent review board, which produced important reform recommendations.

2. Whistleblowers are a critical check on government abuse when other systems of oversight fail us. Dana Gold of the Government Accountability Project explains:

Whistleblowers — employees who discover and disclose evidence of serious misconduct — have been essential to holding government and corporate institutions accountable. Daniel Ellsberg’s disclosures helped end the Vietnam War. Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins’s fraud disclosures drove sweeping financial reform. And Snowden’s 2013 disclosures about the NSA’s dragnet collection of U.S. citizens’ electronic communications drove legislative reforms and heightened privacy protections for consumers to protect against warrantless surveillance. 

The willingness of employees to speak up about illegality and serious threats to public health, safety and the environment has saved lives, changed laws, and averted disasters. Bipartisan passage of numerous federal whistleblower protection laws demonstrates recognition of the powerful enforcement value of employees who witness misconduct firsthand. Those laws have been necessary because, while we know ethical employees are critical to promoting compliance, we also know that whistleblowers, rather than being greeted with gratitude, are instead predictably met with reprisal by those whose wrongdoing they expose.

National security experts like Ryan Goodman and Samuel Moyn predict that whistleblowers will be all the more important with the coming administration. Goodman and Moyn, who both have called on the president to pardon Snowden, conclude that pardoning whistleblowers “is the most significant act Obama can now take to mark the limits of the national security and surveillance state.”

3. He wouldn’t receive a fair trial because he is charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, a draconian law that fails to distinguish whistleblowers from spies. 

The Espionage Act is so one-sided that United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye argues it violates U.S. human rights obligations protecting the public’s right to information:

Simply put, any prosecution of Snowden would not address what I believe should be the core question for a court: Did the public interest in the disclosures outweigh, or were they outweighed by, any demonstrated damage they did to national security? The Espionage Act does not provide a mechanism for the court to assess this question. It does not allow Snowden or any other whistleblower to mount a public interest defense — the accused violates the law simply if he or she disclosed classified information. This all-or-nothing approach does not allow a court to balance the government’s legitimate need to protect certain kinds of information with the public’s right to know. The Espionage Act is antiquated, ill-suited to contemporary national security issues, a relic of the wartime hysteria of a century ago subject to government overreach and abuse. As a result, should he return to the United States absent a pardon, Snowden faces a future that would almost certainly involve an extremely harsh penalty. This will ultimately deter public interest disclosures — including disclosures of fraud, waste and abuse — that are so vital to accountability and democracy.

4. Snowden’s disclosures prompted technology companies to address critical vulnerabilities in their products, making all consumers safer from snoops — whether government or private actors. From Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia:

As a result of Snowden's actions, the Internet has become safer and users are better equipped to protect themselves. Since the disclosures began in 2013, the number of websites moving to HTTPS to encrypt traffic has skyrocketed. (This includes Wikipedia and US federal government websites.) Popular messaging apps like WhatsApp have adopted end-to-end encryption, and apps like Signal, which was used only by the highly privacy-sensitive, have become more popular.

Some of the world's biggest tech companies have stood up against government attempts to enlist them in surveillance operations. Nowhere was that more clearly on display than earlier this year, when Apple refused FBI demands that it insert malware into an iPhone, which would have weakened its technology for everyone.

5. Even if President Obama is hesitant to grant Snowden a pardon, it is the moral thing to do. Snowden did more for our democracy than many politicians do in a lifetime. As Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, writes:

Does anyone seriously think that what Mr. Snowden did was “espionage”? I’ve read the conspiracy theory. But I’ve also listened to seasoned intelligence operatives on both sides of the Atlantic. They, of course, disapprove of what he did. They believe he caused real damage by exposing intelligence sources and methods. But they are also sophisticated enough to understand that his motivation was not that of a spy or a traitor.

The more thoughtful among them — again while deploring his actions — go on privately to acknowledge that this was a debate that was inevitable. That it did have to be held in public. And that the security services, having engaged in that much more open discussion, have actually been able to place much that was secret and legally dubious on a more secure and open footing.

We don’t know what the future holds for civil liberties, but we know we’ll need to put up a good fight. We’ll be needing strong champions like Edward Snowden. We want President Obama on our side, too. 

posted January 19, 2017 by Noa Yachot and Geoffrey King

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