WASHINGTON — Supporters of Edward Snowden complained of a glaring omission in the White House’s pledge Friday to rein in government surveillance activities: amnesty for the fugitive leaker who’s now holed up in Russia after revealing the secrets that led to this shakeup.
Snowden supporters were thrilled that the man they view as a whistle-blower essentially forced President Barack Obama to acknowledge — and pledge to correct — the excesses of a vast U.S. spying program. However, they added, Obama should have taken the additional step of pardoning Snowden, who faces three felony charges related to his disclosure of classified information he’d accessed as a contractor working with the National Security Agency.
With far too many political and legal barriers to any clemency deal, analysts say, the best the pro-Snowden camp can hope for is that the president’s assertion that “this debate will make us stronger” could translate into a shift in Americans’ perception of Snowden as a populist hero, not a traitor. In news releases, on television and across social media, the former contractor’s supporters drove home the message that the reforms announced Friday came solely because of Snowden’s unauthorized disclosures.
“Does Obama really think he’d be giving this speech or purporting to fix the broken NSA surveillance without Snowden’s revelations? Please,” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth posted on his Twitter account.
Hours after Obama’s announcement, The Huffington Post’s homepage showed a photo of the bespectacled, solemn-looking Snowden under a giant bold headline of just one word: “Vindicated.” Civil libertarian and human rights groups, meanwhile, seized the moment to push for more protections for “whistle-blowers” like Snowden.
“Today’s important discussion would not have happened if Edward Snowden hadn’t thrust the scope of the government’s activities into the open,” said a statement from Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on exposing corruption and other government misconduct. “Unfortunately, one major issue the president did not address was the fact Snowden did not have safe channels to make disclosures. If the president wants to prevent leaks, there must be meaningful intelligence community whistle-blower protections.”
Snowden, 30, kept quiet Friday after Obama’s speech. His reaction to the reforms will come next week, promised Julian Assange of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which has assisted Snowden in his disclosures and travels.
Snowden flew from Hawaii to Hong Kong in May with tens of thousands of government documents, some of which were leaked to international media. On June 23, Snowden traveled to Moscow on an Ecuadorean travel document he’d obtained after the U.S. government revoked his passport. After weeks stuck in a transit lounge at the airport, Russia granted Snowden temporary asylum on Aug. 1.
Earlier this month, The New York Times and Britain’s The Guardian newspaper published editorials calling on Obama to drop his demand for Snowden to return to the United States to stand trial. The Times argued that he shouldn’t face life in prison for revealing that “government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law.”
Americans don’t exactly agree, according to public opinions polls conducted since Snowden’s first revelations in June. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in November found that 60 percent of Americans surveyed thought that Snowden’s disclosures harmed national security; 55 percent said he was “wrong” to funnel information to the media about the government’s surveillance practices.
But the negativity toward Snowden doesn’t mean the public gives the government a pass on its spying practices. The same poll found that a majority of Americans say surveillance programs intrude on their personal right to privacy. But they haven’t quite resolved the balancing act between surveillance and national security — 46 percent said the NSA goes too far in its data collection, while 47 percent said the efforts are “about right” or not extensive enough.
In announcing the reforms Friday, Obama mentioned Snowden by name, saying he’s “not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations.” The president then repeated claims that Snowden’s leaks might have caused long-term harm to U.S. national security interests. He suggested that it was a dangerous precedent if people disgruntled with government policy “can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information.”
That line of attack infuriates Snowden supporters, who said previous whistle-blower cases show that the government’s reaction is spotty when people come forward with allegations of transgressions.
“The president has decided that a top ‘reform’ inside the NSA in the wake of Edward Snowden’s courageous revelations is to prevent other Snowdens from coming forward. By criminalizing, threatening and outrageously punishing whistle-blowers, the administration has hoped to stop the American people from learning the truth about the government’s action,” said a statement from the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, the activist group behind a campaign to plaster city buses with “Thank you, Edward Snowden.”
Snowden appeared to take comfort in the knowledge that his actions could spur copycat leakers or at least inspire other activists to push back against government secrecy, said Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who was among a group of high-profile anti-secrecy activists who traveled to Moscow in October to present Snowden with a whistle-blower’s award. He said there was no question in his mind that Snowden deserves amnesty.
“No one promises to keep evidence of gross violations of our Constitution secret,” McGovern said by phone from North Carolina.
In Moscow, McGovern said, Snowden and the visiting dissidents chatted late into the night about activism around government secrecy. At one point, McGovern said, he asked Snowden whether he was “hopeful” about the continuation of his mission.
“We got this big, broad smile,” McGovern recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, I’m hopeful now.’”
Tish Wells of the Washington Bureau contributed.