The bipartisan freakout over the mere possibility that President Donald Trump might pardon Edward Snowden is a reflection of the deep-seated prejudice that exists against the National Security Agency whistleblower.
Prejudice formed among elites immediately after Snowden revealed he was behind disclosures that exposed the United States’ global mass surveillance programs, which violated people’s privacy both domestically and abroad. It intensified as he was trapped in a Moscow airport after the State Department revoked his passport and was forced to seek asylum from Russia.
Yet, with Trump, the hostility has grown even more feverish because—although there is no proof whatsoever—this coalition of neoliberals and neoconservatives sees the hand of Russia President Vladimir Putin behind the sudden interest in Snowden’s case.
Days after an exclusive report in the New York Post suggested Trump was considering a pardon, Trump was asked about Snowden.
“Well, I’m gonna look at it. I mean, I’m not that aware of the Snowden situation, but I’m going to start looking at it,” Trump replied. “There are many, many people—it seems to be a split decision. There are many people that think that he should be somehow treated differently and other people think he did very bad things.”
Trump added, “I’ve seen people that are very conservative and very liberal, and they agree on the same issue. They agree both ways. I’m going to take a look at that very strongly, Edward Snowden.”
In 2013, Trump fiercely objected to Snowden’s actions. “This guy is really doing damage to this country, and he’s also making us look like dopes. We can’t allow this guy to go out there and give out all our secrets and also embarrass us at every level. We should get him back and get him back now.”
But what Trump said suggests he never had a firmly held viewpoint on Snowden. It was all part of his vitriolic opposition to President Barack Obama’s administration.
‘Finding His Safe Refuge In Putin’s Russia’
Democratic Representative Adam Schiff appeared on CNN’s “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer and said, “Where is this coming from? You know, I have to say it makes you wonder because we know so little of what the president discusses when he talks to Putin, and Snowden is of course finding his safe refuge in Putin’s Russia right now.”
Quite a few delusions related to Russia influence in the Trump administration have been perpetuated by Schiff, who is the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). In August, he also was responsible for ensuring dragnet internet surveillance was not eliminated from a bill for reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act.
According to Demand Progress, a grassroots advocacy organization that fights to protect privacy and civil liberties, Schiff cut “Dreamers,” young immigrants protected from deportation, and other immigrants from a proposed protection that apparently “served as a loophole to protect something else: potential undisclosed surveillance of Americans’ internet browsing and search histories.”
Snowden revealed an NSA program called XKeyscore that collected “nearly everything a user does on the internet.” It swept up a person’s emails, social media activity, and browser history. And he also exposed PRISM, which allowed the NSA to access to the servers of companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other companies to “collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers, and live chats.”
In other words, Schiff is a key defender of the very mass surveillance programs that systematically violate privacy, which Snowden exposed.
Republican Representative Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, declared, “Edward Snowden is a traitor. He is responsible for the largest and most damaging release of classified info in US history. He handed over U.S. secrets to Russian and Chinese intelligence putting our troops and our nation at risk. Pardoning him would be unconscionable.”
There is zero evidence that China or Russia ever obtained access to documents. In fact, Snowden did not take copies of the documents with him when he left Hong Kong because he did not think it would be in the “public interest.”
Nonetheless, this notion from “former spies” that Russia tried to “get their hands” on “intelligence” from Snowden—and that China “may have already had their turn”—was first laundered by Blitzer on CNN and by other news media outlets in late June 2013. It gradually became part of the shared perspective among elites.
In 2014, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Snowden of effectively colluding with China and Russia.
“It struck me as—I just have to be honest with you—as sort of odd that he would flee to China, because Hong Kong is controlled by China, and that he would then go to Russia, two countries with which we have very difficult cyber-relationships, to put it mildly,” Clinton stated.
Pardoning Snowden Would ‘Mock’ The ‘National Security Workforce’
A bipartisan statement from Democratic Representative Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and Republican Representative, the committee’s Ranking Member, condemned Trump for teasing that he would reconsider his position on Snowden.
“Edward Snowden did enormous harm to our national security and he must stand trial for his actions,” they proclaimed. “President Trump and [Defense] Secretary [Mark] Esper have both decried harmful leaks from the Department of Defense and elsewhere in the federal government. To pardon Snowden now would completely undermine this administration’s position and mock our national security workforce who take immense caution in their work to keep us safe.”
They added, “It would be a serious mistake to pardon anyone who is charged under the Espionage Act, who admits to leaking sensitive information, and who has spent years since then as a guest of the Putin regime. 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.”
The statement was a full-throated defense of the Insider Threat Program in the U.S. government that has further entrenched a two-tiered justice system for leaks, where lower level employees or contractors like Snowden are punished for exposing abuses and high-ranking officials like former CIA Director David Petraeus are allowed to leak intelligence with impunity.
Former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice glibly responded, “I. Just. Can’t. Congratulations GOP. This is who you are now.”
Rice suggested Russia could be behind the uprising in Minneapolis and other cities after George Floyd was murdered by police. Fortunately, that conspiracy theory was too kooky for the mass media and never gained traction.
‘So Putin Wants Snowden Pardoned’
Barry R. McCaffrey, a U.S. Army general who was part of President Bill Clinton’s administration, reacted, “So Putin wants Snowden pardoned. The world turned upside down. What do the Russians have on Trump?”
As the New York Times reported in 2008, McCaffrey is a military propagandist who was “at the heart of a scandal” during the Iraq War that involved retired generals hired by ABC, CBS, and NBC, who were recruited by the Pentagon to make their case for war. He had “undisclosed ties to companies that benefited” from the invasion and occupation.
“Just noting that Trump seems a lot more concerned for Edward Snowden, whom Putin is harboring, than American troops whom Putin is targeting,” neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol remarked.
Kristol was the co-founder of the Project for a New American Century who led the charge in President George W. Bush’s administration for the Iraq War. As late as 2015, he was still defending the decimation of an entire country that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and thousands of dead U.S. soldiers.
“Even with the absence of caches of weapons of mass destruction, and the mistakes we made in failing to send enough troops at first and to provide security from the beginning for the Iraqi people, we were right to persevere through several difficult years. We were able to bring the war to a reasonably successful conclusion in 2008,” Kristol declared.
The “reasonably successful conclusion” led to the birth of ISIS, which terrorized Iraq, Libya, and Syria throughout the past decade.
Furthermore, as Gareth Porter documented, the “Bountygate” story was a scandalous effort by Afghan intelligence that the Pentagon exploited to prolong the Afghanistan War.
‘Hard To Put Into Words How Fucking Batshit Crazy This Is’
Simon Rosenberg, the founder of the centrist New Democrat Network, reacted, “Hard to put into words how fucking batshit crazy this is. For all not up to speed, this is an admission that our President is owned by Putin.”
Attorney Mark Zaid, a pseudo-advocate for whistleblowers who represented the Ukraine call whistleblower, unintelligibly commented, “Neither Snowden’s life nor his limbs were ever at risk except in conspiracy devoted minds. Oh, and likely in Russia where he now lives voluntarily since that country has a history of [government] assassination of rogue officials.”
Zaid frequently spends his time on Twitter justifying prosecutions of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act because they did not go through the “proper channels” and blow the whistle the right way.
Finally, Joshua Geltzer is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Justice Department official. He put together a thread that went viral, which is everything wrong about the conversation on pardoning Snowden.
“First, Trump simply wants to distract by changing the subject, as he so often does. COVID deaths, voter suppression—there’s so much bad for Trump that he wants a topic change to Snowden,” Geltzer argued. “We shouldn’t let him. But we should understand that his motivation goes deeper.”
“Snowden’s narrative is Trump’s in a sense: it’s all about distrusting U.S. intelligence & law enforcement and portraying them as the enemy. This is Trump’s whole obsession with 2016 counterintelligence work, Flynn, etc. Snowden’s story thus aligns with Trump’s.”
Geltzer continued, “Snowden divides and polarizes Americans, and Trump loves any topic that does so. Trump thrives on a America split, and what’s more, disagreeing on basic facts. Snowden is deeply divisive, even on the facts of what he did, & so he’s a useful foil for Trump to polarize us.”
“Trump is using Snowden to attack the idea of truth itself, as Trump does relentlessly (learning from Putin). That’s why Trump is emphasizing that some people love and some hate Snowden. Trump wants you to believe that there’s NO right answer—to Snowden and so much more.”
Geltzer concluded, “So let’s deny Trump the distraction he seeks. Let’s stay focused on the deaths and authoritarianism and various Trump misdeeds that must stay front & center. But let’s also understand what Trump’s doing so we can thwart it and get ahead of him. Or he’ll just do it again.”
This is not three-dimensional chess. It is possible to support a pardon for Snowden and still defeat Trump, especially since Snowden is not some unabashed Trump supporter.
The American Civil Liberties Union supported a pardon for Snowden because he sparked an “unprecedented global debate about the proper limits of government spying.” His whistleblowing transformed privacy laws and standards, the security of the devices we use and how we communicate, and our understanding of how institutions govern citizens.
Snowden is not as divisive as elites want the public to believe. A 2017 poll by The Economist only found 29 percent of Americans supported prosecution.
Geltzer dismisses “Snowden’s narrative” as one that inappropriately sows distrust in U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. But once again, Snowden was vindicated when an Obama-appointed panel recommended several reforms and a federal appeals court concluded the NSA’s bulk collection of call records was unconstitutional.
The problem for elites is that they have staked their opposition to defending national security institutions, and Snowden showed they were complicit or involved in systematically violating the privacy of Americans, which forces them to excuse the indefensible.
In their defense of intelligence industrial-complex, they promoted a theory that the Trump campaign engaged in a conspiracy or coordinated with the Russian government to beat Hillary Clinton. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation was unable to substantiate this theory to fully discredit and remove Trump from office.
But Trump can point to abuses in how the FBI applied for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant for surveillance against Carter Page, who was a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser. He can point to the fact that FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith pled guilty to “altering an email about Page to say that he was ‘not a source’ for another government agency.” (Page was working for the CIA.)
Trump may connect the abuse of FISA warrants to a pardon for Snowden, and if he does, those opposed to Trump should not respond feverishly as neoliberal and neoconservative elites have. They should recognize how awful it is that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and the Democratic Party establishment have totally abandoned the protection of civil liberties and ceded so much ground to right-wing politicians.