Edward Snowden

Should Snowden Have Run Away?



Yesterday, Georgia Institute of Technology law and ethics professor Peter Swire published an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he tried to sort through the "culture war" between spies and techies over how they view Edward Snowden. My views are pretty clear. What struck me was Swire's assertion that he would think better of Snowden had he chosen to go to jail for making his revelations about unconstitutional domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. Swire writes:

After wrestling with the issue, I think that Snowden could have been a conscientious objector — but he has thus far failed the test. A central element of nonviolent dissent is to move society's conscience by taking personal responsibility. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. went to jail for their beliefs, but Snowden ran away.

Going to jail is, of course, a lot to ask of a person. But Snowden knowingly set himself above the law, claiming a higher morality. Full clemency, without any jail time, would create a bad precedent in holding others in the intelligence community accountable, should they break security rules.

The moral leadership and the sacrifices made by Gandhi and King deserve our highest respect. Gandhi and King were imprisoned for the crime of fighting for liberty. However, both men were able to communicate with and guide their movements from their jail cells. After being convicted of "sedition" in 1922, Gandhi was sentenced to six years of imprisonment, of which he served two. The known charges against Snowden could add up to 30 years in prison.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested 30 times. In 1960, he was sentenced to four months in prison for participating in a lunch counter sit-in in Atlanta, Georgia. He was quickly released after the intervention of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Most famously in 1963, King was jailed for eleven days in Birmingham, Alabama for protesting government-mandated racial segregation. From his jail cell, King composed one of the great documents of the civil rights movement, The Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Both the British Raj and the segregated South were brutal, but their functionaries were not able to impose the sort of totalitarian silencing that our current legal system enables with regard to cloaking the illegal activities of the surveillance state. Even now, the NSA has stamped "top secret" its own "talking points" outlining its claims against Snowden and refuses to release them in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The liars at the head of national surveillance state had blocked any way for whistleblowers like Snowden to alert Congress and the public to their violations of our constitutional rights.

Interestingly, Swire does not mention the much more relevant civil disobedience case of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg who, like Snowden, was charged under the Espionage Act in 1971 and could have been sentenced to 115 years in prison.

Ellsberg pointed out in a July, 2013 Washington Post op-ed that Snowden today would be imprisoned and held in total isolation and incommunicado. His trial, when it would occur, would be closed to the public on the excuse that an open trial would harm national security. Ellsberg noted that after his arrest he was immediately released on his personal recognizance. That would not happen today. Instead, Ellsberg writes: 

I hope Snowden's revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy, but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here. There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell … incommunicado. … He would almost certainly be confined in total isolation….

Snowden's contribution to the noble cause of restoring the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments to the Constitution is in his documents. It depends in no way on his reputation or estimates of his character or motives — still less, on his presence in a courtroom arguing the current charges, or his living the rest of his life in prison. Nothing worthwhile would be served, in my opinion, by Snowden voluntarily surrendering to U.S. authorities given the current state of the law.

I hope that he finds a haven, as safe as possible from kidnapping or assassination by U.S. Special Operations forces, preferably where he can speak freely.

What he has given us is our best chance — if we respond to his information and his challenge — to rescue ourselves from out-of-control surveillance that shifts all practical power to the executive branch and its intelligence agencies: a United Stasi of America.

Swire is wrong. Snowden deserves our admiration and support.

NEXT: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il, from Reason Contributor Michael Malice

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  1. It takes a special sort of intellect to believe Snowden’s info would ever have seen the light of day if he had gone through “official channels”.

    1. Or lack of intellect. It is not like Snowden knew something that the top officials in government didn’t.

      You go through channels when you find out some mid or low level person is doing something wrong. But when the wrong doing is from the top, going through channels is pretty pointless.

      Snowden either had to go public or shut the fuck up. As soon as he said one word of objection, they would have taken his security clearance and denied him access to the information and thus been able to call him a liar if he went public.

      It is one thing to think this stuff is okay and Snowden was wrong to object. That argument is wrong but it doesn’t insult my intelligence. But anyone who claims that Snowden could have dealt with this through channels is just telling me I am stupid and will believe anything.

    2. yes, it does. Usually the form of intellect found in the ivory tower of academia. And those folks wonder why some people see them as living in an alternate universe.

      1. Swire was in the OMB for a while under Clinton. Some sort of privacy position in OIRA, I think.

    3. Yes, a very “special” sort of intellect.

      1. But they passed a whistle blower law, right?

        So aren’t they all protected now?

        Surely the most transparent administration ever, utilizing laws with such good intentions, made everything perfect didn’t it?

    4. You keep using that word. (Intellect) I do not think it means what you think it means.

  2. Peter is assuming that the system is otherwise just and that Snowden is just fighting this one tiny injustice. That is not the case. I think it’s pretty clear that Snowden would not have been treated fairly and had almost no chance of receiving whistleblower protection. Why should he have to sacrifice his freedom and possibly his life to reveal unconstitutional actions by the government? It’s the government that’s doing something seriously wrong here. If our system wasn’t so broken, a number of high-level administration officials would be doing time for these violations.

    I’ll grant that it would be more impressive if Snowden had pulled a Socrates and insisted on being charged, etc., but I’m just glad this information about the government’s blatant disregard for the Constitution and the law got out, even if Snowden had totally impure motives.

    1. I’ll grant that it would be more impressive if Snowden had pulled a Socrates and insisted on being charged

      Except that Socrates did so to inspire change, or at least reflection, in the society and city he loved. Snowden, as the article points out, would not have been able to get his side of the story in front of the public using this strategy.

      1. OF course his death didn’t change anything in Athens.

        1. It influenced Plato, who has influenced us, so there is that.

          1. Who subsequently influenced Aristotle, let us not forget.

            1. Who subsequently influenced Copernicus.

              1. Who inspired the writers of Back to the Future, Part III.

              2. it’s influencing all the way down. Opa!

              3. Huh?
                /rubs sleep from eyes

            2. Who subsequently influenced Rand.

              Of course, she got at least one thing wrong from him, as she failed to be properly influenced by G?del.

            3. Who subsequently influenced Alexander. Who conquered Athens. So, in the long run, yeah, maybe Socrates did.

            4. If nothing else, Aristotle must have thought old Phil the Macedonian’s offer to be a tutor to some hick princeling was a better deal than hanging in vibrant Athens.

              1. And, of course, he was Macedonian himself with connections to the throne before all of that. I imagine he wasn’t always treated so well by the native Athenians.

      2. What he could’ve done was dumped the information–all of it–on to the web and thoroughly disseminated beyond hope of blocking, then turned himself in at a big press conference announcing the fact. To do that, of course, would be to open himself up to all sorts of nastiness.

        Not saying he should’ve done that, but that’s the Nuclear Socrates option.

        1. That would have been a good option.

          1. Or–and this is cunning beyond all cunningness–get Tim Tebow to release the information.

          2. A dead man switch keeps that option available.

            1. I’d be stunned if he doesn’t have exactly that. Why else release stuff piecemeal? Am I alone in thinking there’s something extra special bad in some of the remaining material?

              1. My guess is it is stuff which he believes really should remain classified becuase it really does help keep people safe/hurt just the bad guys/or would put actual lives at risk if revealed and that yeah he is using that threat as a kind of nuclear deterrent on his life

        2. That he didn’t, is a testament to his virtue. It shows that his intent is not to discredit legitimate intelligence actions but to expose the wrongdoing.

          1. I was going to mention that. It’s clear that he can’t be totally anti-U.S. or anything since he didn’t do that and doesn’t appear to have handed everything over to a competing nation. He’s said publicly that he thinks there’s legitimate spying, so obviously a lot of the data isn’t “bad” in his eyes. From what he’s saying, anyway.

        3. It’s the slow drip of information that’s hurting Obama so badly. Continually catching them lying is hilarious. A huge info dump would have lasted only one news cycle.

          1. There’s some truth to that, but I’m not sure fifty horrible facts released at once might not have had a more direct impact.

            1. I’m satisfied with the slow bleeding. Otherwise, people might have forgotten by now.

              1. At least it’s a constant.

              2. Death of a thousand cuts is better than Zero and his butt-buddies deserve.

          2. The slow drip will continue with the next POTUS. But there are some shit-for-brains academicians who think everything is about them and their idols.

        4. the Nuclear Socrates option.

          Great band name or greatest band name?

        5. Part of the effectiveness of his leak has been it’s gradual and ongoing nature. First, it’s kept the issue in the press for much longer than had he just dumped it all at once. Second, he gave the folks at NSA a chance to go out and lie about the initial disclosures, and then proved them to be liars with further disclosures.

      3. Except that Socrates did so to inspire change, or at least reflection, in the society and city he loved.

        Which is how you know the whole thing is a bullshit story.

    2. They would have either thrown him in jail or just denied and had their toadies in the media paint him as a liar. The only reason we are having the debate about the NSA and not about whether Snowden is lying is because Snowden had proof such that they had to admit what they were doing.

      1. I’m not saying he should’ve done it; I’m just saying I’d be more impressed. Humans like martyrs. Doesn’t really matter, because all that does matter is that the facts of the government’s illegal actions have been revealed. Even if Snowden is SVR, that’s a good thing.

        1. How did the martyr angle work out for Manning?

          1. Well, he is quarterbacking a team in the Super Bowl.

  3. Why not? It worked out well for Manning. And in thirty-five years maybe Chelsea can resume spreading the message.

    1. In the meantime she’ll probably be spreading something else in jail

      1. A prison rape joke combined with anti-transgender swipe. Double classy.

        1. I like to think we’re bringing everyone down to the same level. If men can be the butts of prison-rape jokes, why should we arbitrarily exclude women and minorities?

          I, for one, welcome the equal treatment of women and minorities.

          1. I guess I am not a fan of prison rape jokes, it is a pretty horrible example of state misdeeds.

            1. I was being facetious, but I wouldn’t single out transgenderism (or any class of people) as being exclusively exempt from tasteless humor.

            2. Except when it happens to a former agent of the state who is getting what’s coming to him.

        2. Um, that wasn’t exactly a joke.

          She’s in a military prison and the government HATES her. I’d be shocked if they didn’t let her guards and probably even some other prisoners subtly know that a little extra rough treatment of her will be overlooked and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they outright ordered it at some point in the future.

  4. “What struck me was Swire’s assertion that he would think better of Snowden had he chosen to go to jail for making his revelations”

    Snowden gave up a six figure job, a house in Hawaii, and a hot ballerina girlfriend. I think he has sacrificed enough.

    1. He will spend the rest of his life on the run from the US government. Maybe he should have taken the long tour of super max. But no one can say what he did didn’t take balls or require a lot of sacrifice.

      Anyone who can say for sure they would have done the same and not just ignored it, either has actually done such a thing in the past or is a liar.

    2. I was rooting for hot ballerina girlfriend to move to Russia. Maybe she doesn’t like borscht.

    3. What struck me was Swire’s assertion that he would think better of Snowden had he chosen to go to jail for making his revelations

      What strikes me is Swire’s assumption that Snowden had that choice. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that, had Snowden remained in the US, he would simply have been disappeared. Of course, people in the intelligence community would know better than me what sorts of illegal things people in the intelligence are capable of committing – perhaps we should ask them if they think Snowden could have safely faced the nusic here in the US.

      Oh, wait. One of the people most likely to know what sorts of bad things might happen to a Snowden is ….. Snowden. Let’s ask him if he thinks it would have been safe to stay here.

  5. Hmmmmm, let me think? Should I :

    A. Be a patriot and rot in a federal prison for the next 30 years?
    B. Be a patriot and be free?

    1. I wouldn’t call what Snowden is being free but yeah, it certainly is better than the alternative

      1. Right now he is free to continue the slow drip of damaging information.

        Props to Snowden on the slow-drip approach. An egoist would have done the one gigantic bomb thing instead of death by a thousand cuts

  6. Snowden would have ended up face down in an unmarked grave in some third-world country that is our “partner” in the global war on terror.

    Snowden would have never seen the inside of jailhouse in the US.

    1. “Killed while resisting arrest.”

      1. Exactly. Some FBI goon would have killed him and then gotten a medal.

        1. Well, I tend to agree with Francisco that it probably isn’t that bad yet, in the U.S. now, if he were to.be apprehended in a different country, by non-U.S. agents, who.knows? They probably want to speak with him (in a closed room, with no.legal representation) pretty badly, so he is worth.more alive than dead, so.far.

    2. Meh, I doubt it’s gotten that bad yet.

      1. Manning’s pre-trial detention was pretty bad though. (disclaimer: IMO Snowden is a hero, Manning is not.)

        1. It was terrible. But we all know about it and he/she is not dead.

      2. Snowden would have been flown out of the country and interrogated (with passion) and then buried someplace.

        And everyone in the intelligence industry would be made totally aware that this is what happens to snitches.

        The stated fucking policy of the president of the united states already says this is “legal” under his authority.

      3. Who was that reporter that died in a fiery car crash?? You know the one that nobody remembers now.

  7. I’ll grant that it would be more impressive if Snowden had pulled a Socrates and insisted on being charged, etc.,

    “What are you going to do, shoot me?”



    “Get the backhoe, boys. I’ve got a tee time.”

  8. It is too much to expect someone as small as Snowden to do this. What should have happened is someone in Congress should have gotten this information, gone to the well of the House or Senate and red it all into the record. Congressmen are immune from prosecution for what they say in the Capital. Watching DOJ try to go after a Congressman, and they would have, would have made these people reveal themselves for who they are and created the kind of spectacle that would have maybe brought some change.

    1. Takes an awful lot of trust in a politician to do that. Also, the congressperson would’ve had to have known that Snowden was breaching security to hand over the documents, and that part might be easier to prosecute. Conspiracy to embarrass Obama or something.

      1. They would subpoena the Congressman and demand he tell them who gave him the information. At that point the Congressman tells them to fuck off and they try and hold him in contempt.

        It would have been high drama. And while they would have talked a good game, no way would they actually send a Congressman to Super Max for that. So your risk is not that great.

        But trying to do it would have been a complete disaster for them.

        1. No doubt that I would relish a constitutional crisis, especially one that wakes up Congress as an institution. It’s telling how bad things have gotten that Congress never unites against the president no matter how far he goes in trampling on the branch’s rights. That used to happen now and again.

          1. Slight correction:

            no matter how far he goes in trampling on the branch’s rights powers.

            1. Fair enough, but, indirectly, those prerogatives exist to protect our rights.

        2. Another thought after reading http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S…..ravel_case

          They’d go after the aides and hammer them and anyone else around the congressman.

    2. I’m not so sure. First, you’d have to have someone with backbone. Second, the leadership on both sides of the aisle are on board with Big Brother. They would have halted the speech midsentence, if it even got to that point. Then they would have yelled national security and stripped whatever they could from the congressman.

      1. Bernie Sanders comes to mind as someone who probably doesn’t care.

    3. The main problem in handing this over to a congresschimp or a senator is getting past the flappers. The number of these critters you can trust to do the right thing is two, maybe three out of 535, and if Amash or Paul aren’t your reps/sens, your chances are close to zero.

    4. What should have happened is someone in Congress should have gotten this information, gone to the well of the House or Senate and red it all into the record.

      This is a joke, right?

  9. Fuck Peter Swire. Too much focus on Snowden’s supposed character and not enough on the government’s malfeasance.

    The information stands as submitted. It is not necessary to be nailed to the cross to be right.

  10. In some alternate universe, there is a memorial to John Wilkes Booth on the Mall.

    In some other alternate universe, Obama was impeached and imprisoned based on Snowden’s revelations, and James Clapper was hanged by the neck until dead at Fort Leavenworth. And I watched it live in my secret fortress on the moon.

    1. That’s some alternative universe.

      1. And Eddard Stark sits on the Iron Throne.

    2. In some alternate universe Obama would rise no higher than alderman.

  11. law and ethics professor Peter Swire

    *rolls eyes*

  12. Prof. Swire should write a song: “Bravely bold Ed Snowden. . . .”

  13. Also someone inside would have found (or manufactured) evidence of the congressperson’s sexual or financial malfeasance and either threatened to use or actually released it. There’s a lot to be said for Snowden operating outside of US borders–it’s somewhat harder to suborn British journalists and the Russian (or Hong Kong) government.

    Note I said ‘harder’, not impossible. Putin may get tired of sheltering him eventually.

    But there are rumors that Snowden kept a ‘nuclear option’ himself, just in case. If that’s true, God knows what it might be…

    1. The whole idea of the doomsday machine is lost IF YOU KEEP IT A SECRET.

      I want to know how many Congressscum are secretly willing to pay Snowden to shut up.

      As Mencken pointed out, Snowden is not a man of morals, he is a man of honor. Men of morals are common as muck, all of them hypocrites.

      1. “The whole idea of the doomsday machine is lost IF YOU KEEP IT A SECRET.”

        On the other hand, since we assume there’s a doomsday machine:

        “The value of the Sword of Damocles is that it hangs, not that it falls.”

  14. It would have been insane to turn himself in or go through ‘proper’ channels. Remember that our government got several nations to refuse a plane with the President of another foreign nation permission to land in the early days of this matter. That shows just the tip of the heavyhandedness they would have brought down on Snowden if he were not in a place relatively safe from the US.

  15. Sounds like Peter Swire is protecting his relationships in the TOP.MEN circles by acting tuffgai on Snowden.

    I wonder, but doubt, if he’ll get called out the next time he cold calls his tech contacts.

  16. “Should Snowden Have Run Away?”
    Yes, unless suicide-by-official was the plan.

  17. But America’s not a police state.

    Nope, no way could that happen to the home of the free.

  18. Great points.

    It’s not fair to compare Snowden, a whistleblower, to King and Gandhi, who were both leaders and strategic thinkers.

    Snowden saw something wrong and realized the only possibility for fixing it was to tell the public. Knowing that no one else was in a position to do anything or likely would, he risked his freedom (and quite likely his life) and did what any of us should hope we would do.

    He risked everything to protect us from governments that are out of control. Who dares criticize him for trying to get back as much freedom as he can?

    1. Snowden is better than either Ghandi or King. He risked more, and he had no political faction to back him. He’s completely on his own.

      1. I agree with your point about Snowden acting alone. Given that King was beaten, imprisoned and murdered, how did Snowden risk more? Is it because he acted alone that he risked oblivion, whereas King and Gandhi knew that their causes would outlive them regardless of what happened?

    2. I think Snowden is much more strategic than we know.

      It would be tough to tell since there seems to be a great deal of information not yet leaked, but even aside from the slow leak being a good idea, my bet is he released very specific pieces on information in a specific order, knowing what the response would be to the initial information and so on.

      IE – I think he continues to set them up and is doing extremely well. I think it shows he understands a great deal about how ideas are pushed, how people react, how government combats bad news, etc, etc, etc.

      Though it’s quite possible he wanted the slow leak as more of a protection mechanism and the order was just incidental – but given everything else, fleeing to China, then Russia… I think he’s a great deal smarter than most give him credit for.

      Disclaimer: He can be very smart, a hero, and still be a personal wreck I wouldn’t give the time of day. Like others here – I think trying to argue about his morality is a smokescreen – the information he released should live or die on its own.

      But I do think the planning involved in how all of this went down shows a good understanding of a fair number of complex issues.

  19. “After wrestling with the issue, I think that Snowden could have been a conscientious objector[…]”

    IT’S A TRAP!!!

    1. Hey, he wrestled with the issue. Wrestled.

      1. Greco-Roman, Sumo, or WWE?

  20. Although I haven’t seen any US coverage, al Jazeera acquired the primary NSA “Talking Points” under FOIA release last month:





















  22. He would have been crazy not to run away!


  23. And the Underground Railroad should have operated openly.

  24. If Snowden were still in the USA, he’d be treated far worse than Chelsea Manning, who was tortured by his obviously gay commanding officer who insisted on him being totally naked – not even underpants!

    I’m delighted that Snowden is out of the country, able to continue informing us about the illegal activities of the US government, government employees, and politicians all of whom have sworn to defend the US Constitution…

    Snowden deserves our admiration and support, he’s a real hero!

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