While NSA leaker Edward Snowden lives out a Robert Ludlum novel somewhere between Moscow and who knows where, a domestic campaign on his behalf reached a crucial threshold: the White House Petition to “Pardon Edward Snowden” recently crossed the 100,000 signature mark, which, according to the rules of the game, should automatically trigger a response from the administration. (It was at 112,653 as of this writing.)
It’s too bad, then, that all those signatures were wasted on such an asinine document. The Snowden petition is poorly conceived, awfully written, and, to the extent that it allows the government to freestyle a response without compelling it to act, counterproductive.
Chief among the many lessons of the Snowden affair is the limits of our epistemology: we don’t know what we don’t know, a lesson missed on the pundits who have been calling Snowden a traitor, without acknowledging that they could only disapprove of his betrayal of surveillance programs because he let them know such programs existed.
This cuts both ways. The petition was posted after the initial revelation of Snowden’s identity three weeks ago, when he appeared like a noble dissenter. Since then, however, we’ve learned he fled to a nation with far more restrictive rights; coldly ditched his girlfriend; suffers from what even his supporters have diagnosed as a case of grandiose delusions; and revealed information on foreign espionage efforts, which falls well outside the parameters of his initial objection to the surveillance programs. (Breaking: countries spy on each other!)
Most troubling of all, today we learned that Snowden intentionally sought out his post at defense contractor Booz Allen for the precise purpose of gaining access to material he always intended to leak. This dissolves the image of Snowden as someone who “Saw something, said something,” an ordinary employee so outraged by government transgression that he just had to expose it. Now, Snowden looks much more like a calculating activist who shrewdly misrepresented himself. It doesn’t change the importance of what he revealed. But it should greatly problematize a petition to pardon someone if what looked like his conscience turned out to be cunningness.
And that’s just what we know now. What might we learn tomorrow, or in six months? It could be nothing, or it could be disqualifying. We simply have no idea, which is why the stipulation that Snowden be pardoned “for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs” (my emphasis) is so mind-boggling. Any crimes he “may have committed?” Do we really want to exonerate all of Snowden’s actions before we know what they are? To reach for the handiest example, Julian Assange is currently in hiding in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London not because of his WikiLeaks revelations but for rape charges. This is not to say that one leaker’s crimes implicates all leakers; Snowden might have rescued a puppy while sneaking out of Booz Allen. But until we have a full accounting of his actions in the process of obtaining and releasing this information, should we really be handing out pardons for potential misdeeds?
Last, the White House petition website is something of a ruse. It’s a cute if somewhat cloying way for the Obama administration to interact with constituents, and while nobody has ever fooled themselves that executive action would be taken because a lot of people signed a petition to keep bad basketball uniforms off the court, it was a handy way to elevate issues that routinely get sidelined in the national discourse (cough, weed).
That’s the generous interpretation, anyway. The more critical version is that the Obama administration is using a gimmick to obscure its increasingly desultory transparency record, by giving people the sensation of petitioning their government when really they’re doing no more than posting on their Facebook feed, and allowing the government to “respond” with the federal equivalent of a constituent letter.
Such a smoke-and-mirrors act is more damaging when the issue involves transparency itself. Equally problematic as the surveillance programs is the fact that the government kept their expanding scale a secret. Yet aside from some pressure to declassify FISA individual rulings, no congressional action has been taken to address the government’s allergy to sunlight. Congress has the (ever-diminishing) authority to compel the executive to act; a petition, no matter how many signatures, does not. Thus the government will be able to use its response to the petition to pretend as if it is addressing citizens’ concerns without changing a thing. This is a poor use of activism. It creates the illusion both that something is being done to save Snowden, and that it is working. Neither is the case.
This is not to say that Edward Snowden deserves to be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act (see Scott Lemieux on this subject), or that Snowden needs to be a saint for us to disapprove of government surveillance (see Ben Smith’s wise piece here). But as this petition intentionally conflates Snowden’s fate with the nobility of his enterprise, it necessarily hinges on that nobility. Was what Snowden did noble? I have no idea, and neither do you, which is why you should support an investigation into his actions rather than a pointless and preemptive pardon of them.
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