Other NSA employees had protested internally, only to be persecuted.
What would you do, if you discovered that powerful government agencies had secretly violated the constitutional and statutory rights of millions of your fellow Americans?
Do nothing, knowing that those agencies would use their secret powers to silence their critics? Or reveal their wrongdoing, knowing that they would come after you?
This was Edward Snowden’s dilemma. Other NSA employees had protested internally, only to be persecuted. Going to Congress would be futile. Politicians were more interested in attracting campaign contributions from NSA’s corporate partners than in curbing agency wrongdoing.
Snowden went to the press. He did not dump raw documents on the Internet; he gave them to responsible journalists and trusted them to decide which were newsworthy, after checking with the government to make sure that sensitive sources or methods would not be compromised.
Once the documents were published, the agencies retaliated. They exiled Snowden to Russia by revoking his passport while he was passing through. Fortunately, he knew better than to carry anything that the Russians might want.
A federal appeals court agreed that the massive surveillance program Snowden disclosed was illegal. Congress passed important reforms. The European Parliament instructed its member states not to extradite Snowden to the United States. Even Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama admitted that Snowden had performed a public service.
So, what would you do now? Leave Snowden in exile? Prosecute him on the theory that it is a crime to disclose the government’s crimes? Or return his passport and grant him a pardon that no future president can overturn?
Chris Pyle teaches constitutional law at Mount Holyoke College. He disclosed the Army’s domestic spying in 1970, which landed him on President Nixon’s “enemies list.”