Earlier this week, the New York Times editorial board published a lead article calling for “Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower” to be offered “a plea bargain or some form of clemency.”
Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service.
Snowden’s critics and supporters responded to the proposal pretty much as you’d expect.
Opposing the motion, Slate defense writer (and one-time Iraq war hawk) Fred Kaplan “gasp[ed] at the megalomania and delusion in Snowden’s statements, and [couldn't] help but wonder if he is a dupe, a tool, or simply astonishingly naïve.” Meanwhile, to supporters like Glenn Greenwald — for whom Snowden is a lottery scratch card that won’t stop paying out — a pro-clemency editorial in such an important and credible newspaper as the Times is proof positive that he’d been right all along. (Never mind that Greenwald had previously attacked the Times for “spread[ing] leader-glorifying mythologies or quite toxic smears of government critics without any accountability.”)
Like most debates in the Internet age, the conversation around clemency for Edward Snowden hasn’t prompted much fresh thinking. Those who believe Snowden a hero and a whistle-blower have lined up on one side, while those who consider him to be — for want of a better phrase — a fucking dick, line up on the other. For, against. Hero or traitor. Amnesty or exile. Medal or death. Easy peasy.
Careful Pando readers might have suspected what my daily barrage of pro-Greenwald Twitter trolls know for certain: I’m not a huge fan of Edward Snowden, the man. Still, when I say I find Snowden insufferably self-important, you should at least know I do so with some self-awareness, and a large degree of domain expertise. Not only did I write the book on insufferable self-importance, I followed it up with not one, but two sequels. Three memoirs, about a life which — although it did include an evening during which I physically assaulted an American counter-terrorism officer — has not, at the time of writing, led to root and branch reform of any country’s intelligence service.
And yet, speaking as an expert in grotesque arrogance, and with full acknowledgement of his accomplishments, I can safely say Snowden’s misplaced sense of his own importance, as evidenced by his interview with the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, leaves my own ego gasping in the dust.
Remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself…
I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don’t realize it.
I mean, we can argue that Kaplan is doing the defense department’s bidding when he calls Snowden “a dupe, a tool”, or that Gelman’s WaPo colleague, Ruth Marcus, is a government lickspittle for writing…
Time has not deflated [Snowden’s] messianic sense of self-importance. Nor has living in an actual police state given the National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower any greater appreciation of the actual freedoms that Americans enjoy.
…but, well, they’re not wrong, are they? Even if you agree with TechDirt’s Rob Hager that Snowden is a constitutional hero, you must also be thankful he wasn’t around for the drafting of the actual document, which might otherwise have been printed on “The Desk of Edward Snowden” letterhead and begun “I, the person…”
And we shouldn’t allow Snowden’s smugger-than-a-Guy-Fawkes-mask personality blind us to the rebarbative hypocrisy of the man. The fact that, for all his outrage about American spying, we haven’t heard a single fucking peep from him about the hideous domestic spying and human rights record of his current host country. Or how, despite his huffing and puffing about privacy, he blithely dismisses corporate spying in the US on the basis that private companies don’t put “warheads on foreheads” (unless, presumably, one counts Palantir, Blackwater or, uh, his former employer Booz Hamilton…)
Given all of that, it’s hard not to read the Times editorial, take one look at Smug Eddy, and conclude “Screw that! Russia can keep him! He and Vlad deserve each other.”
There’s just one problem with that reaction: The New York Times is right.
For one thing, Snowden might be an unlikeable sort, but justice rarely concerns itself with likable sorts. Phil Spector was offered a plea deal, OJ was offered a plea deal, as were Jack Abramoff, Scooter Libby, Bernie Madoff, Paris Hilton, and Bruno Mars.
Fortunately we — by which I mean Americans, and Brits like me — are fortunate to live in a country where being an ass, a hypocrite, or even a scoundrel, doesn’t deny one access to justice. (At this point someone will likely wail about Chelsea Manning’s military trial, so I’ll clarify my statement: Those who live in America or Britain and do not volunteer to put on a military uniform before acting like an ass, get access to justice. There is no suggestion that Snowden will face a military trial — and, in fact, Eric Holder has confirmed, in a legally binding letter, that he will not.)
Then we need to consider all the other factors that should encourage leniency: not least Snowden’s exposure of a decade or so of systematic wrongdoing by the National Security Agency against just about every man, woman, and child on planet Earth.
Many of those disagreeing with the Times editorial have fixated on the word “clemency” — as if the newspaper is demanding an unconditional pardon for a guy who stole a bunch of secrets and then fled to China and Russia. In fact, while the Times did float the idea of clemency (perhaps as a way of shifting the middle, to make a plea bargain seem like more of a fair compromise — or because one of the editorial board was high), what they also wrote was this…
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…
When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government. That’s why Rick Ledgett, who leads the N.S.A.’s task force on the Snowden leaks, recently told CBS News that he would consider amnesty if Mr. Snowden would stop any additional leaks. And it’s why President Obama should tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr. Snowden’s vilification and give him an incentive to return home.
Exactly. It’s absolutely right and just that, in the way many other serious criminals are offered plea bargains, Snowden should be given the chance to come home and cop to a suite of lesser charges, while being promised immunity from the big old nasty ones like espionage.
But there’s an even bigger reason why Snowden’s critics should be rooting for a plea deal: Offering Edward Snowden a ticket home is the best, quickest way for us to see which side — Snowden’s critics or his supporters — is right about him.
If Snowden is the man his supporters say he is… a heroic figure, draped in flag and constitution, but forced to subsist in exile in a country he loathes, hoping — like Sam Beckett in “Quantum Leap” — the next leap will be the leap home… a plea bargain is his chance to prove it.
In exchange for what the Times calls “a substantially reduced sentence” — likely a few years in a minimum security prison — a repatriated Snowden will have the ear of every journalist, lawmaker, and member of the public during his trial, incarceration and for the rest of his life: an unending mandate to expose government wrongdoing wherever it lies, home and abroad. Snowden, we’re told, just wanted to be heard, just wanted his superiors at the NSA to listen. Well, they’re sure as hell listening now. We all are.
Alternatively, for those who think Snowden a traitor and a coward, a plea bargain might prove them right instead. In his Slate editorial, Kaplan predicts:
Unless Snowden changes his stripes dramatically, he doesn’t seem inclined to cooperate with his former masters, whom he now depicts as threats to world peace… My guess is, Edward Snowden will spend a very long time in Russia, in some other country ruled by an even more unpleasantly authoritarian regime…
And, certainly, if Snowden rejects a fair plea deal it would indicate that, for all his protestations, he’s actually pretty happy on the lam. That the mission he considers accomplished is the one that gets his face on a whole load of magazine covers without giving much of a twopenny fuck about government spying in the US or anywhere else. It might also expose the fact, as suggested by some who know a thing or two about Russia, that Putin’s FSB has a slightly more permanent arrangement in mind for their prized catch. We’ll know that’s the case if Snowden’s rejects a deal with some form of bluster about how he fears a trap or that… actually… come to think of it, his work is not yet done and… well… Quito is quite lovely this time of year.
My own predication, for what’s it’s worth, is an outcome somewhere between those two scenarios. There’s no doubt Edward Snowden is at least partially full of it, particularly when it comes to his forgiveness of spying by major corporations. Also, I feel pretty sure that he decided to make Russia his new home from the moment he set foot in the country’s consulate in Hong Kong.
But for all of his arrogance and his muddled, me-me-millennial politics, there’s no denying that Snowden’s outrage at government spying (in the US at least) is authentic, or that, like Chelsea Manning before him, he at least made some effort to get his superiors to listen to him before he went public. Simply put, Snowden is proof that you can be both a whistle-blower and a blowhard: a whistle-blowhard.
By now, I suspect Snowden has started to realize that some of those people who were so nice to him — the kindly FSB men who stamped his visa, and his best pal Glenn who turned around and sold the movie rights to the Snowden story without giving Ed a brass rouble — might not have been so firmly on Team Edward after all.
The NSA documents are out there now: controlled not by Snowden but by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and, by extension, their new employer Pierre Omidyar. Nothing the government can do to the original leaker will prevent their publication. Whether for his personal enrichment or the public good (depending on what you believe), Glenn Greenwald will make sure of that.
Offering Snowden a plea deal, and him accepting it, allows almost everyone to save some face: Snowden comes home a hero, and the US government is able to rob Putin of his propaganda coup, while making clear they won’t give full amnesty to people who leak secrets.
Meanwhile the rest of us who care about the actual issues underlying this whole circus can finally have a bipartisan conversation about national security overreach without the sideshow of Edward Snowden the smug defector vs an evil US government machine thirsty for his blood.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]