On Jan. 1, the New York Times published an editorial calling to grant a presidential pardon to Edward Snowden who is currently residing in Russia after having disclosed classified NSA operations — news that quickly spanned the entire globe. Immediately it triggered a firestorm of criticism, or at least as much of a firestorm as a newspaper editorial is capable of triggering anymore.
There is no sign that President Obama is actually considering taking any such action, but that does not mean that we, as American citizens, should not give the matter some thought.
There are two things all reasonable people should be able to agree on regarding Snowden: he performed a service to the American people and he broke the law.
But was the benefit of his disclosures enough to justify his actions? Should the president welcome the spy in from the cold?
Note that I did not ask whether Snowden deserves a pardon. Granting a pardon to someone undeserving can still be a good idea. Richard Nixon was about as undeserving of clemency as any person you’re likely to find, but Gerald Ford made the right call in sparing the nation from having to put the ex-president on trial.
However, the President should not pardon Edward Snowden, deserving or not.
The key is that his disclosures go far beyond the ones concerning NSA snooping on American citizens. He also revealed all sorts of NSA programs targeted at nations such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, as well as information on the technical capacity of the NSA. Why exactly making details of intelligence operations against our enemies public is a service to the American people is something Snowden has yet to prove.
Essentially, many of his disclosures are nothing more than “the agency whose stated job it is to electronically eavesdrop on foreigners is electronically eavesdropping on foreigners.” Even the spying on our allies should not come as a surprise to anyone. The U.S. has never agreed not to spy on its allies. Nor have they agreed not to spy on us (and it has been revealed the Mexicans, Brazilians and French were all doing so in recent years, despite their public outrage at the NSA).
The domestic spying revelations are something we should be grateful for, but they are only part of a much larger picture.
Granting Snowden a pardon would tell would-be Snowdens that you can release as much classified information as you want as long as at least some of it happens to be in the public interest. It would be a dangerous precedent to establish.
That is why the question “hero or traitor?” is a useless one in this case.
Traitors can have a bit of a hero in them as well. Snowden is a mixture of both. You can admire him for the risk he took in letting Americans know that their government was listening to them, but you cannot forget that he told a great many people a great many other things as well.