Edward Snowden’s Future?

Investigating journalistic ethics in the case of the Snowden NSA leaks.

On June 5th, 2013, the Guardian, a UK based newspaper, published 9,000 leaked National Security Agency (NSA) files on the then unknown surveillance of Americans. Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and NSA subcontractor, then came forward as the one who leaked the files. For this he has divided many people as to whether or not he is a hero or traitor. Now, as he takes asylum in Russia, questions have been raised about his current movement for a presidential pardon and the ethics of the Washington Post.

After a few years of working as a subcontractor, Snowden felt that many of the practices of the NSA were “invasive” and “disturbing”. Over time, he illegally copied files that he found to be the most intrusive and alarming, building up a dossier. Many of these files demonstrated the way in which Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court required, on a daily basis, Verizon to provide them with phone records and activities of their customers without the consent of the customers. Snowden then met with the Guardian in Hong Kong and gave reporters the files with a note to be published alongside them that said his reason for whistleblowing was “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

After coming forward, he was charged with “theft of Government Property,” “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person” by federal prosecutors. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have called him a traitor and classified his actions as a threat to homeland security.  His story has since come up again as he has recently started to campaign for a presidential pardon from President Barack Obama.

His movement for a pardon started with an online petition that was signed digitally by the required 100,000 people. It is now up to the President to make the decision. The primary reason Obama may choose to pardon Snowden would be to repair relations with those who saw the leak as evidence that Obama wasn’t living up to the promises of transparency he had campaigned with while running for President. The publication, The Atlantic, found that many organizers of the pardon campaign say that Obama should ignore critics in his final months in office and should “acknowledge that the government did wrong.” They also say that granting a pardon could be used as a “counterpoint to some of the most problematic aspects of President Obama’s national-security legacy.” One of the biggest movements for the pardon has been the Oliver Stone directed movie “Snowden” that tells of Snowden’s life leading up to and including the leak.

One reason for which Obama may not pardon Snowden, is that it may contribute to the idea that he is weak on National security. Pardoning Snowden would also add fuel to previously leveled attacks that Obama is apologizing for America. If President Obama was to grant the pardon, he would most likely wait until after the November election to avoid hurting Secretary Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning. Clinton has previously expressed that she believes Snowden should not be allowed back into the US without “facing the music.” As for her opponent, Donald Trump gave a statement to The Atlantic in 2013 saying “This guy is a bad guy. And, you know, there is still a thing called execution.”

Through the release of this earth-shaking information, the following outcry, and the debate over a potential pardon, there has been another issue called into question. This issue is the ethics of newspapers, most notably, The Washington Post. Though the original leak was in the Guardian, The Washington Post played an important role in reporting on the transgressions that transpired. The Post was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for reporting done involving the leaks. Recently, as the campaign for a pardon has received more media attention, The Washington Post editorial board published an article asserting that Snowden should be prosecuted and would ideally “come home and hash out all of this before a jury of his peers. That would certainly be in the best tradition of civil disobedience, whose practitioners have always been willing to go to jail for their beliefs.” Though there is traditionally a separation between newspapers and their editorial boards, throwing a valuable primary source under the bus has been lambasted by many as unethical. This is first recorded time in history that a major American paper has explicitly editorialized support for the criminal prosecution of their own source.

Touching on National security and technological surveillance issues and policies, along with discussions on the role of Presidential pardons and the ethicacy of news sources as the United States enters the digital era, the Snowden case will be an important part in the history of the United States as the debate it has caused continues.