How Cute: Thomas L. Friedman Thinks the American People, Not Their Angry, Powerful Government, Would Be in Charge of Punishing Edward Snowden


New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman just isn't sure whether Edward Snowden is a "whistle-blower" or a "traitor," because Snowden apparently "dumped his data and fled to countries that are hostile to us and to the very principles he espoused." (Note to future whistleblowers: Dripping out leaks to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras over several months is the new "data dumping.")

But don't worry—Friedman has a solution to this apparent conundrum, one that underlines just how ignorant this perennial bestselling author can be:

To make a second impression, Snowden would need to come home, make his case and face his accusers. It would mean risking a lengthy jail term, but also trusting the fair-mindedness of the American people, who, I believe, will not allow an authentic whistle-blower to be unfairly punished.

Actually, if he was tried as the "traitor" Friedman thinks he might be, Snowden would face the death penalty. But as it stands, the whistleblower—and there is no "authentic" definition of "whistleblower" I'm aware of that doesn't apply to what Snowden did, no matter how much one hates Russia (and I'll stack my Russophobia against Friedman's any day)—is charged by his government of violating The Espionage Act twice, plus a third count that could drive his maximum sentence to 30 years. And—spoiler alert!—people charged with espionage are not tried in the court of American public opinion, they are prosecuted by a government with a shameful track record of using the Espionage Act as a club to punish whistleblowers.

Did the American people "allow" former FBI linguist Shamai Leibowitz to be sentenced to 20 months in prison for leaking to a blogger classified documents that he maintained showed his own government violating the law? Was there public hue and cry when former CIA analyst John Kirakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison this January for giving the name of a CIA torturer to a reporter (who didn't publish it), as part of him being the first U.S. government employee to confirm the practice of waterboarding prisoners? Read the names of the prosecuted leakers in this May 2013 Reason post and ask yourself how many of their cases were impacted the tiniest little bit by the court of public opinion. How many of them are even known?

It is stunning, the amount of potential punishment Snowden's critics demand he subject himself to as the price for jump-starting a long-overdue civil liberties conversation that nobody in power ever wanted to have. Yes, Russia is "hostile to us," but the point is that Putingrad is not nearly as hostile to Snowden as us. What the White House and its apologists don't seem to either realize or care about is that modern-day American whistleblowers are being incentivized to either A) skip off to regimes that enjoy thumbing America in the eye, or B) keep the whistles out of their mouths in the first place. Both are bad outcomes for the functioning of government, for national security, for free speech, and for basic democratic legitimacy.

Bonus Friedmanalia for connoisseurs: The column contains not one but four paragraphs of imaginary speechcraft for President Obama, and literally ends with this paragraph: "You can Google it." 

Reason on Snowden here, on Thomas L. Friedman here.