Sorting Through the Snowden Aftermath

Posted on Sep.19, 2016 in Intelligence, Oversight, Snowden by Steven Aftergood

Public discussion of the Edward Snowden case has mostly been a dialog of the 
deaf, with defenders and critics largely talking past each other at increasing 
volume. But the disagreements became sharper and more interesting over the past 

“Mr. Snowden is not a patriot. He is not a whistleblower. He is a criminal,” 
wrote the members of the House Intelligence Committee in a startling September 
15 letter to the President, urging him not to pardon Snowden, contrary to the 
urging of human rights groups.

“The public narrative popularized by Snowden and his allies is rife with 
falsehoods, exaggerations, and crucial omissions,” the House Intelligence 
Committee wrote in the executive summary of an otherwise classified report on 
Snowden’s disclosures.

Remarkably, however, the House Committee report itself included numerous false 
statements and misrepresentations, according to an analysis by Barton Gellman, 
who had reported on Snowden’s disclosures for the Washington Post.

“The report is not only one-sided, not only incurious, not only contemptuous of 
fact. It is trifling,” wrote Gellman, who identified several apparent errors 
and falsehoods in the House Committee summary.

What is perhaps worse than what’s contained in the House document, though, is 
what is missing from it: Congressional intelligence overseers missed the 
opportunity to perform any reflection or self-criticism concerning their own 
role in the Snowden matter.

The fact that U.S. intelligence surveillance policies had to be modified in 
response to the public controversy over Snowden’s disclosures was a tacit 
admission that intelligence oversight behind closed doors had failed to fulfill 
its role up to that point. But since the Committee has been unwilling to admit 
any such failure, it remains unable to take the initiative to rectify its 

Last week, a coalition of non-governmental organizations proposed various 
changes to House rules that they said would help to improve the quality of 
intelligence oversight and make it more responsive to congressional needs and 
to the public interest.

Meanwhile, several human rights organizations launched a campaign to urge 
President Obama to pardon Snowden.

“Thanks to his act of conscience, America’s surveillance programs have been 
subjected to democratic scrutiny, the NSA’s surveillance powers were reined in 
for the first time in decades, and technology companies around the world are 
newly invigorated to protect their customers and strengthen our communications 
infrastructure,” the petition website said. “Snowden should be hailed as a 
hero. Instead, he is exiled in Moscow, and faces decades in prison under World 
War One-era charges that treat him like a spy.”

However, aside from that oblique reference to the Espionage Act of 1917, the 
petition campaign does not acknowledge any defect in Snowden’s conduct or weigh 
counterarguments. (A somewhat more nuanced defense of a pardon was presented by 
Tim Edgar in Lawfare. A substantial rebuttal to the pardon proposal was offered 
by Jack Goldsmith also in Lawfare.)

But of course what complicates the Snowden matter is that his disclosures 
exceeded the boundaries of “democratic scrutiny” and went well beyond any 
identifiable “act of conscience.”

“The fact is, many of Snowden’s documents bore no resemblance to whistleblowing 
as the phrase is broadly understood,” wrote Fred Kaplan in a review of the new 
Oliver Stone movie about Snowden in Slate. Rather, he said, they represented 
“an attempt to blow U.S. intelligence operations.”

Advocacy journalist Glenn Greenwald replied with a debater’s point that Snowden 
is innocent of any such offense since he (Snowden) did not directly disclose 
anything at all to the public! Instead, he gave documents to newspapers that 
reported on his material, and those papers are responsible for any 
inappropriate disclosures.

“Snowden himself never publicly disclosed a single document, so any programs 
that were revealed were the ultimate doing of news organizations,” according to 

In an oddly mercenary argument, he also wrote that it was hypocritical of the 
Washington Post editorial board to oppose a pardon for Snowden, considering 
that the Post had gained “untold millions of clicks” from his disclosures, and 
therefore somehow owed him a debt of loyalty.

But an effort to shift responsibility away from Snowden on to news reporters 
and editors proves too much. It implies that Snowden is not a whistleblower at 
all, since he himself didn’t blow any whistles, his journalistic collaborators 

It seems more sensible to conclude that Snowden is responsible for his own 
actions as well as for the directly foreseeable consequences of those actions.

In an interesting response to Jack Goldsmith, Marcy Wheeler wrote that it is 
possible to comprehend — if not to reconcile — the sharply opposing views of 
the Snowden case if they are understood as a clash between professed American 
values (such as openness, privacy, and internet freedom) and American interests 
and actions (such as global surveillance and projection of military power). The 
former, “cosmopolitan” view presumes, however, that the favored values 
transcend, and can be sustained apart from, their

It's better to burn out than fade away.

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