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On Saturday, Elon Musk decided he was not done stirring the pot and posted yet another poll for users to express their opinions. The topic: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
In a tweet, Musk asked: “Should Assange and Snowden be pardoned?”
I am not expressing an opinion, but did promise to conduct this poll.
Should Assange and Snowden be pardoned?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 4, 2022
This question has not been explored on a national scale since the Trump administration, when many called on former President Donald Trump to grant clemency to both of these individuals. But now, the issue is back in the spotlight for now. So I thought it might be good to explore it.
In this piece, I will start with Edward Snowden, who reportedly swore an oath of allegiance to Russia, where he is currently residing. It is believed that the former National Security Agency contractor took this step because it would mean he would not be subject to extradition — a threat that has been looming over his head since he fled to the country in 2013, shortly after leaking classified information to the Guardian and Washington Post.
A quick refresher on this case: Snowden worked as a contractor for the NSA in Hawaii, until he decided to gather up classified information regarding its surveillance practices and give them to Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian and others. In a series of articles and a video interview, the report detailed how the agency not only spied on foreign countries with which we were not at war, but it also conducted surveillance on everyday Americans – even if they had not been suspected or accused of a crime.
Snowden’s leaks brought to light the fact that the NSA was (and probably still is) collecting phone logs of hundreds of millions of Americans, even if they have no links to terrorism. They also showed that the agency possesses the ability to access significant amounts of user data from Big Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others. As they monitor the communications of extremists overseas, they gather even more online data about Americans.
Lastly, the whistleblower revealed an NSA tracking program called “Boundless Informant,” which kept management informed on the types of data it was collecting. The Guardian noted that the agency collected 97 billion pieces of information from global networks. Three billion came from networks based in the U.S.
“We hack everyone everywhere,” Snowden told the Guardian. “We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world. We are not at war with these countries.”
Later in the interview, the former NSA contractor described how vast the agency’s operations are:
The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.
Many have hailed Snowden as a hero for exposing the corruption in our federal government. Without him, they argue, Americans would remain unaware of the reality that their own government is spying on them for no good reason. It is not difficult to imagine the type of tyranny the state could enact on individual civilians with this type of mass data-gathering operation.
But others have condemned him as a traitor, arguing that his decision threatened national security. Media activist Jeffrey Toobin, yes, that Jeffrey Toobin, slammed Snowden after the leaks were published. In a piece for the New Yorker, he wrote:
What, one wonders, did Snowden think the N.S.A. did? Any marginally attentive citizen, much less N.S.A. employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications. Perhaps he thought that the N.S.A. operated only outside the United States; in that case, he hadn’t been paying very close attention. In any event, Snowden decided that he does not “want to live in a society” that intercepts private communications. His latter-day conversion is dubious.
Toobin continued, pointing out that Snowden “more or less acknowledges” that he committed “a crime.”
“Any government employee or contractor is warned repeatedly that the unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a crime,” the author continued. “But Snowden, apparently, was answering to a higher calling.”
Toobin then noted that some of the programs the NSA had launched were “legally authorized” and that Snowden was not “blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety.”
“The question, of course, is whether the government can function when all of its employees (and contractors) can take it upon themselves to sabotage the programs they don’t like. That’s what Snowden has done,” Toobin added.
He later argued that the government “offers legal options to disgruntled government employees and contractors” who “can take advantage of federal whistle-blower laws” and “bring their complaints to Congress.”
Essentially, the author suggested that Snowden should have gone through the already-established channels and expected the federal government to police itself. But what would have happened had Snowden taken this route? Would the state’s malfeasance have been truly exposed? Or would it simply work to mitigate the damage done by this leak?
In the end, it is difficult for me to posit that Snowden should not be pardoned in this instance. The NSA had no business using its power to spy on American citizens – especially those who had no ties to any threats to national security. These types of programs exist to enable the federal government to exert its power over the citizenry. By gathering this data unbeknownst to average Americans, they could easily lay the groundwork for further action against individuals who are not deserving. In this case, it is the government who should be held accountable, not the man who exposed their tyrannical machinations.