Edward Snowden: The Digital Frontier's Hero, Martyr, or Traitor?

Edward Snowden, clutching the American flag for a Wired photo shoot.
Photo Credit: 
Wired magazine

    I feel a personal need to touch upon the story of Edward Snowden. His name now evokes varied responses among the international and national communities, and tends to act a lightning rod for commentary with words like hero and traitor sprinkled just about as frequently as what he exposed: the likes of PRISM itself. And whether a desire to embrace or rebuke stands most starkly in one’s mind, let’s start with a singular acknowledgment: Snowden confirmed what was known-yet-hidden (or, at the very least, greatly suspected) among the denizens of the Net. These acts of surveillance and collections of metadata were, and are still, huge – and as such the case for a pardon (or any new action on the national level) is a matter of intense debate. Let’s try and explore this, and what course of action might best serve our country and the noble ideals it aspires to.

    I, and I’m sure many others, heard a common refrain when Snowden first appeared in the news. If he felt like he had to expose corrupt, overreaching, potentially unconstitutional practices: why flee? And, even more pointedly: why flee first to Hong Kong and, shortly thereafter, arrive in Russia? The implications from arriving in a Special Administrative Region of China and, next, our former Cold War opponent’s doorstep spark appropriate fears. Let’s start with the obvious answers, though. If the need to escape persecution and attempts to silence your voice weigh greatly enough: what better place to seek temporary harbor or asylum than the foes of your nation? While it presents poorly in terms of public relations, it logically follows that exposure of US wrong-doings to its own people and the international community would spark outrage. In the flames of this outrage, perhaps the greatest protections could be found in nations with highly functional intelligence agencies and a willingness to stand firmly against the United States. In this mindset the goal was not to flee to either location to assist them, but to guarantee Snowden’s continued survival that he might act as a voice and advocate for change.

    If this logic is accepted – then Snowden accepting asylum from Russia is a matter of self-preservation rather than an attempt at aiding an enemy to our nation. The trouble, therein, becomes that his very presence within the borders of a somewhat hostile foreign power raise questions of his safety and ability to communicate freely. Indeed – what motivated him to seek asylum initially may now be trapping him as time marches on. Internationally, he’s still often heralded as the man with the mind and will to tear down the curtain hiding the overreaches of U.S. surveillance, and yet he still remains a burden and dissident in the making. Few countries can afford the burden his presence would present, and fewer still can protect him. Snowden has greatly limited options, and we – as the American people – need to face the realities of what we should do about the challenge he represents.

    Now, I know at this point I have to have a good number of readers chomping at the bit to question the nature of Snowden’s heroics. Indeed – he revealed a treasure trove of data with little oversight. His own admissions to the likes of, of all people, John Oliver included owning that he was not suited nor able to review the full materials he was releasing. To that end – he relied on journalists to act in the greater interests of the people. It seems worth pausing here to note that this act effectively recognized the potency of the First Amendment by handing journalists such documentation and evidence. His greater point, then and now, was that no attempt to raise concerns from an insider of intelligence or security agencies was going to trigger reforms. He had made such efforts already, but the best and perhaps most oft cited example of this, likely, would be when James Clapper (the Director of National Intelligence) provided false testimony to Congress in March of 2013 regarding the scope of these surveillance programs. While the point of Snowden’s releasing more than he likely should have and without the ability to fully vet the information/intel being provided stands as valid, what real course of action remained for him to take after the highest level official for intelligence could openly lie to Congress – those elected to represent America itself?

    The question we find ourselves facing now is if the risks Snowden took in releasing the data he did weigh too heavily against him when compared to the revelations he provided to our nation and the world. While I personally worry an outright pardon is being too forgiving, I cannot claim to see a better solution than the one Snowden undertook if you believe mass surveillance to be a betrayal of Constitutional rights. Isn’t that the general measure of any military or intelligence undertaking, ultimately? To gauge whether the core goals were accomplished successfully, while taking stock of the collateral damage and causalities in the aftermath? Additionally – facing the prospect of leaving Snowden to asylum in Russia leaves a poor, fearful taste in my mouth. My takeaway is that action is necessary for Snowden’s, and America’s, own good – and that a Presidential pardon (while not ideal) may be the best means of accomplishing this. And with the likes of Trump & Hillary approaching the White House rapidly, Obama holds the current power to act. One wonders what mark this will leave on the Obama legacy, but hopes that it raises awareness of the digital threats we face in this brave, new world.

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