Edward Snowden

Snowden's Leaks Were Important Enough for Pulitzers, But WaPo Editorial Board Wants Him Prosecuted Anyway

Newspaper demands less government transparency.


Justin Lane/EPA/Newscom

The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 in the public service category along with The Guardian. The two newspapers shared awards for their coverage and analysis of the leaks of data by Edward Snowden showing that the National Security Agency (NSA) was essentially snooping on millions upon millions of American citizens by collecting and storing mass amounts of our online and phone data.

These revelations directly contributed to at least one major reform that attempted to restrain the surveillance authorities of the NSA to make sure mass data collection is targeted toward particular search efforts and not just happening in bulk. Though there were efforts by privacy activists to force reform prior to Snowden's leaks, it's likely also true that the USA Freedom Act would never have been crafted or passed without him.

The Washington Post's public service reporting helped make that happen. Its editorial board remains unimpressed. In response to a big new push to try to convince President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden, the Post's editorial board published a weekend editorial saying "Nope." They're essentially taking the same position as Hillary Clinton. They want him to come home and throw himself on the mercy of the American federal court system:

Ideally, Mr. Snowden would come home and hash out all of this before a jury of his peers. That would certainly be in the best tradition of civil disobedience, whose practitioners have always been willing to go to jail for their beliefs. He says this is unacceptable because U.S. secrecy-protection statutes specifically prohibit him from claiming his higher purpose and positive impact as a defense — which is true, though it's not clear how the law could allow that without creating a huge loophole for leakers. (Mr. Snowden hurt his own credibility as an avatar of freedom by accepting asylum from Russia's Vladi­mir Putin, who's not known for pardoning those who blow the whistle on him.)

The second-best solution might be a bargain in which Mr. Snowden accepts a measure of criminal responsibility for his excesses and the U.S. government offers a measure of leniency in recognition of his contributions. Neither party seems interested in that for now. An outright pardon, meanwhile, would strike the wrong balance.

So, even though the board understands that Snowden wouldn't be able to defend himself properly from prosecution, he should just accept that and come home anyway. "Neither party seems interested in [negotiations] for now" is quite the understatement. The Obama administration has an unprecedented reputation for throwing the book at leakers. It's remarkable to still see the "Why did he flee to Russia?" argument in 2016 given how clearly obvious—which this commentary itself notes—that there is no indication of leniency from this administration.

This is the same Department of Justice that threatened a reporter with possible prosecution for refusing to testify and reveal a source of a leak. Eventually then-Attorney General Eric Holder relented. The feds were able to convict the leaker without James Risen's information. One wonders what Holder's level of mercy might have been had they been unable to secure a conviction without Risen's testimony.

And this is the same Department of Justice whose prosecutor threw the book mercilessly at Aaron Swartz for the crime of downloading tons of studies from computers at MIT in an effort to browbeat him into accepting a plea bargain. Instead he committed suicide.

This administration's idea of mercy is telling people like Snowden to accept what they're offered or they're going to get punished even harder. As I noted last week with the push to pardon Snowden, Obama and this Department of Justice seems interested only in correcting the prosecutorial injustices of previous administrations, not its own.

As for Snowden's cultural cachet, we may be seeing its decline. Snowden did not blow anybody away in the theaters this weekend, coming in fourth in box office returns. It brought in about $8 million, far less than Sully, which won for a second week in a row. Despite getting decidedly mixed reviews (due to the way Oliver Stone decided to approach the movie), Cinemascore, a movie viewer polling firm, noted it received the best grades of the movies released this week from people who went to the theaters to watch. That suggests to me that people with already strong views in support of Snowden were likely the ones who went out to see the movie.

The Post editorial also notes the House Intelligence Committee report released last week, timed with the release of Snowden, designed to try to knock down any suggestion of the whistleblower as a hero, as evidence that he shouldn't be pardoned. Awkward situation for the editorial board: Barton Gellman, the journalist who won the Pulitzer for covering Snowden's leaks for the Post, completely dismantled the House's report and many of its misleading claims (read here).

A newspaper's editorial board is largely disconnected from its journalists, so it doesn't necessarily follow that they'd drawn the same conclusions. But given that the candidates for both the Democrats and the Republicans have a history of non-support for free speech, freedom of the press, and for transparency, it should be unnerving for a major newspaper to suggest essentially that a whistleblower throw himself on the mercy of the federal government and hope for the best.

Peter Suderman wrote about the movie Snowden and director Stone for Vox here. Below, watch ReasonTV on the push to pardon Snowden: