Pardoning Snowden Would Backfire on Trump
Pardoning Snowden Would Backfire on Trump
Before Donald Trump was president, he often referred to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who divulged massive secrets to the press about the American surveillance state, as a spy and a traitor. Now Trump is thinking about issuing him a pardon. It is a reckless idea.
Snowden’s initial disclosures were in the public interest. The first stories that appeared in the Guardian and the Washington Post exposed how the US government was collecting and storing all telephone metadata because of a secret legal interpretation of the Patriot Act that authorized the FBI to collect “business records.” In 2015, Congress curtailed much of the government’s collection of bulk phone records as a result of the leak.
Even James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, has conceded that the broad outlines at least of the government’s program to collect phone records should not have been shrouded in state secrecy.
The problem, though, is that Snowden also stole and disclosed far more than that. In June 2013, while in Hong Kong, he shared with the South China Morning Post documents that identified the exact machines the NSA was hacking in China and Hong Kong, along with details of whether they were still monitored and how they were attacked.
This did not advance American civil liberties. Rather, it exposed US efforts to monitor the cyber threats of a hostile power.
Another problem is that even though the US government has conducted a damage assessment of Snowden’s theft of state secrets and disclosures, there is still much it doesn’t know. The reason for this is that Snowden devised a program to scrape the classified computer networks he was administering as a contractor for the NSA in Hawaii. The US government knows the files that Snowden’s program probed, but it does not know which ones he stole.
Ironically, it was Michael Flynn, then the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who conducted that review. Flynn acknowledged the debate “about what kinds of information did he touch, what did he take, what do we know,” in a 2014 interview with NPR.
Flynn later said he was concerned that Snowden may have stolen information on defense capabilities, war plans and technical intelligence collection methods. “Does that knowledge then get into the hands of our adversaries — in this case, of course, Russia?” Flynn asked.
For what it’s worth, Snowden has said that when he was stuck inside the airport in Moscow after he arrived there from Hong Kong in 2013, he turned down an offer from Russian intelligence officials to cooperate with them. But this explanation strains credulity. He has been allowed to lead a rich online life from an apartment in Moscow, and eventually his girlfriend (now wife) was allowed to come to Russia and live with him. It seems unlikely that Vladimir Putin’s police state would be so generous with Snowden unless it was getting something in return.
Even if Snowden’s story is correct, there are still good reasons why Trump should not grant him a pardon. As the chairman and ranking members of the House Committee on Armed Services said in a joint statement Monday, “Not only would it mean that Snowden cannot be held accountable for his crimes, but it would send a dangerous message to others who are contemplating espionage and the adversaries who would support them.”
Nonetheless, one can see why Trump and some of his advisers would be keen on rewarding Snowden seven years after his great heist of state secrets. Trump sincerely believes that the national security state that Snowden exposed unfairly spied on his campaign in 2016 and stoked a meritless investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia for the first two and a half years of his presidency. Pardoning Snowden would be a way of settling scores.
Trump is partially correct about the FBI’s leadership at least and some former leaders of the US intelligence community. It is true that the FBI used unverified and later discredited opposition research to obtain a surveillance warrant on one of his campaign advisers. The bureau also kept open the investigation into Flynn, after it had determined he was not a Russian agent or asset. All the while, former senior US. intelligence officials used innuendo to make it appear that Trump was vulnerable to Russian blackmail when they had no such evidence.
But the system is now working toward accountability. An FBI lawyer who falsified a document submitted to the secret surveillance court was indicted last week as part of an investigation into the Trump-Russia probe. The Justice Department’s inspector general in December released a devastating report, exposing the FBI’s gaming of the surveillance court. That court has withdrawn surveillance warrants sought against a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page.
This is the way a republic corrects the abuses of its intelligence community. It’s a process that Snowden ignored. If Trump pardons him, then the president will be helping to destroy institutions his attorney general is trying to reform.