A Pardon to Move Us Forward, Colltalers
‘Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud and abuse of authority in government.’ That’s on the platform that candidate Obama signed on to become U.S. President. And one of the biggest broken promises of his tenure.
Now a campaign seeking presidential pardon to Edward Snowden, the man whose actions resonate with everything the president once sworn by, only to have his administration label him a criminal, may become one of the most important issues of his final months at the office.
To The Guardian, Snowden made a passionate plea for his case. ‘It’s clear that in the wake of 2013 (the year a trove of documents he publicly disclosed showed the NSA’s widespread surveillance of individuals, regardless of any legal proof or court-issued permission to do so), Congress, the courts, and the president all changed their policies,’ with no ‘evidence that any individual came to harm as a result.’
The campaign, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, counts as supporters Sen. Bernie Sanders, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Black Lives Matter activists, and other civil rights movement luminaries.
Support from Ellsberg adds historic context to the drive. In 1971, he brought to light the top-secret Pentagon Papers, which showed how the government was deceiving and manipulating public opinion to support the then already lost Vietnam War. The disclosures earned him the wrath of the Nixon administration, and he was prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, the same that’s been used against Snowden now.
Two years later, charges were dismissed as baseless. Ellsberg avoided prison time, but the ordeal all but destroyed his military analyst career. His revelations, though, helped end the war, and he’s now the co-founder of the respected Freedom of the Press Foundation.
While support for a pardon to Snowden has been steadily increasing, two important, or rather, decisive, parties remain unmoved: one is the outgoing president, who has been conspicuously mum to the public clamor. The other is his possible successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Before that, a quick aside. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has taken a strong stance against Clinton, but there’s no sign that if her opponent, Donald Trump, wins, life will be easier to whistleblowers like him. Or Snowden. They both have a better shot with Democrats here.
To many, President Obama has little to lose by pardoning the person who introduced into a global conversation about privacy, the disturbing notion that intel agencies can and do track our every move, with little need to show justification to do so. The president’s legacy could actually be enhanced by the move. Without it, on the other hand, Snowden has no realistic chance of getting a fair trail in the U.S.
The obvious precedent is Chelsea Manning, of course, the former Army soldier who disclosed to WikiLeaks a trove of mostly diplomatic cables that shed some light on the inner workings of second and third-tier levels of diplomacy, and profoundly embarrassed the government.
It did not cause any proven harm to agents on the field. But to Manning, the consequences were catastrophic: she was convicted by court-martial in 2013 to 35 years in prison.
A recent scary suicide watch has forced officials to allow her to have a sex reassignment surgery.
A pardon to Snowden could also arguably improve the situation of a number of other whistleblowers who languish in federal prisons with little hope to freedom, or even to remain relevant as citizens. Unlike their more famous counterparts, their revelations may not have brought down unscrupulous industries or greedy corporations, or even rescued them from anonymity, but they were still crucial to democracy.
For whistle blowing is as vital to individual freedom and society fairness as journalism is, and it’s no wonder that both are always under pressure by powers that be. When Mark Felt, then known as Deep Throat, helped Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to unravel the corrupt Nixon administration, through Watergate, he like them, had little to gain but risked going to prison.
Everybody knew that tobacco companies were deceiving the public about smoking for years, but it was one Jeffrey Wigand who came up with that facts that finally exposed them. Manning, Assange, Karen Silkwood, Frank Serpico, John Kiriakou, Jay Rosen, Jeffrey Sterling, William Beeny, Thomas Crane, and others, made us better by following their consciences, at a great cost to their individual rights, and lives.
While they risked name and skin exposing questionable actions, others stood still, either for fear, which is natural, or self interest. The list of claimants does include a few moral midgets who traded and profited from government and corporate secrets, sometimes costing others’ reputation or lives, and the cruel fact is that many of those were actually rewarded for their ‘loyalty,’ and have kept their 30 silver coins.
In Snowden, President Obama has an opportunity to redeem his administration for having prosecuted a record number of whistleblowers, the most of any other presidency, despite all his credentials, and public mandate, to have performed a much better job on this particular.
Unlike all the hysteria of Pentagon hawks and right-wing gung-ho military groups, Snowden has conducted himself with utmost dignity and high moral standards, in sharp contrast to many johnny-come-lately in Congress, who’re now joining in with chants to thrown him in jail.
To absolutely no one surprise, the House Intelligence Committee has chimed in last week, releasing a three-page report blasting Snowden’s character and calling for his prosecution. To many, however, the report’s timing may be designed to counter whatever sympathies an Oliver Stone docudrama about him, his spectacular escape from Hong Kong, and current limbo life in Russia, may receive from the general public.
By aiming, with almost pettiness, at Snowden’s alleged workplace transgressions while working for a NSA-hired contractor, the barely credible paper makes clear that all the fuss about the so called damage his revelations caused on the field are all but a ruse to indict him.
The reality, however, is that this is an opportunity that the president will most likely miss. One can’t help thinking that, by pardoning Snowden, he’d force Clinton to take an independent stand on the issue, which then may undermine his support to her candidacy. On the other side, if she’d decide to follow his lead, which she most definitely should, it’d cause also a radical rearrangement of her campaign’s priorities.
One thing that seems painfully clear about Clinton has been her inability to at least appear that she’s capable of thinking on her feet while making decisions, without having to consult with focus groups first. That inability may rise uncomfortably high if it all comes to it.
That being said, public antipathy, or her uneasiness, even tone-deftness when making off-cuff remarks, are not important qualities for a U.S. president. It’s time for Americans to wake up to the fact that we need a leader prepared to make thoughtful rather than quick decisions, not be a daft player, well versed on smiling and producing bombastic soundbites. And that’s something that deeply distinguishes both candidates.
Clinton supporting a pardon to Snowden, coming from someone who’s perceived as a hawk, may surprised some, and bring an important demographic to her cause: progressive millennials. Actually, never mind millennials, all progressive segments of American politics are fully backing a pardon to him, since he did contribute to the U.S. to become a more transparent society, even if that’s not a reality yet.
His gesture put him side by side with visionaries who went out of their way to fulfill moral duties and, in the process, helped the plight of million of fellow citizens they would never meet. And like those he honorably joined, Snowden has collected only hardship for his acts.
That’s the way it should be, though. Instead of trying to attract Trump’s irredeemable constituency, who thankfully would never acquiesce to her anyway, Clinton would do much better by standing on the side of personal freedom, individual privacy, and civil rights.
Above all, pardoning Snowden will allow us all to reconsider our priorities and move forward as a nation. We must take a hard look at the spectacularly misguided effort of gathering staggering volumes of confidential data, without transparency, or intelligence, to sort it all out.
Despite their stratospheric budget, the security establishment’s faulty intel has often resulted in terrible mistakes, death and imprisonment of innocent people, bombing the wrong army, with no palpable progress in the war on terrorism. Whistleblowers’s clarity of purpose and effectiveness addressing wrong doing stands in stark contrast with the lack of confidence that scary, secretive surveillance instigates.
People like Snowden have a lot to contribute to the national conversation on civil liberties and constitutional rights. Someone willing to sacrifice a cushy lifestyle on the principle that’s everyone’s right to know what’s done on their behalf, should be encouraged, not prosecuted.
The president, and those aiming at filling his shoes, should take this opportunity of reconciliation to move us forward. Have a great one. WC