Donald Trump has often used his constitutional pardon power as a tool to right what he considers to be personal wrongs, and his potential pardon of NSA spy Edward Snowden is no exception. You may remember Snowden as a former government IT contractor who stole more than 1.5 million documents and fled first to Hong Kong before ultimately finding safe harbor in Moscow. Snowden claims he is a whistleblower who took proof of an “illegal” NSA surveillance program targeting US citizens and seems to believe his actions make him worthy of respect. In reality, he is neither a whistleblower, a status requiring one to go through channels which he refused to do. Nor is he worthy of respect.
No, Snowden is no Daniel Ellsberg — the contractor who released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and Washington Post, showing that the Johnson and Nixon administrations had lied to the American people about our efforts in Vietnam, which ultimately cost the lives of more than 58,000 of America’s finest. Ellsberg was motivated by conscience, and took responsibility for his actions, expecting to be sentenced to life in prison. He also revealed no sources or methods.
Snowden, on the other hand, has never accepted responsibility for the damage his theft of classified documents caused, and has falsely represented himself as having protected sensitive information while making disclosures he claimed the American public had a right to know. Yet according to an investigation by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), declassified in 2016, which called Snowden’s disclosures the “largest and most damaging release of classified information in intelligence history,” the documents he took to China and Russia revealed military, defense, and intelligence programs. Did the American public have the right to know details about those things? Of course not. The public elects officials entrusting them to make decisions about intelligence activities and classification needs. Those officials legally decide certain programs or documents are classified, protected — no single person has a right to decide s/he knows better than the executive branch or congress. HPSCI said Snowden’s disclosures cost American taxpayers billions of dollars.
Additionally, the same HPSCI report debunks Snowden’s claim that he never disclosed these documents to foreign actors, and pointed out that in June 2016, the deputy chairman of the defense and security committee in Russia’s parliament said Snowden did share classified information with the Russians.
If Trump decides to pardon this man, who has so clearly damaged the our nation’s security, he brings full circle the contempt he has shown for the intelligence community from day one.
On January 20, 2017, Trump stood in front of the memorial wall at CIA headquarters, boasting about the size of his inaugural crowd in the most sacred of spaces at Langley, showing little respect for heroes who died to protect this country. Between that horrifying day in 2017 and today, Trump also sided with Russia over his intelligence community at a summit in Finland, claiming that he believed Putin’s assurances of noninterference in the 2016 election. Trump reportedly revealed sensitive intelligence that originated with a foreign partner to the Russian foreign minister during a meeting in the Oval Office. Trump said, after intelligence officials including the CIA director contradicted his views on the threat posed by Iran and North Korea during a Worldwide Threat Briefing to Congress, that they needed to return to school. When the whistleblower of the infamous Ukrainian phone call was rumored to be a CIA officer, Trump retweeted articles purporting to name the individual.
On the heels of four years of disrespect and efforts to undermine the intelligence community, it is unsurprising that Trump might choose to pardon a man held in contempt by much of that community. Many consider Snowden to be a traitor. Why did Snowden rush to China, and then go to Russia? He claims he never intended to wind up in Moscow, and blames the US government’s decision to cancel his passport and pressure other countries to reject his asylum requests. He claims Russia was his only option.
He claims he wanted asylum in Latin America. Puzzling, then, is his decision to book a flight to Hong Kong, when flights depart Honolulu for the capitals of Latin America every day. If his theft of classified information was principled, why didn’t he remain in America and accept the consequences of his actions, as Ellsberg so honorably did? Why do even Russian officials acknowledge his assistance?
This is the man Trump has been urged to pardon: unprincipled, dishonorable, and weak. Those same words are an apt description of Trump’s presidency. Trump has pardoned cronies, convicted war criminals, and corrupt law enforcement officials along with a few Americans who deserved mercy. There is no reason to add enemy agents to the list.
A Snowden pardon would demean every intelligence officer who takes his or her oath to protect and defend the Constitution seriously and who risks his or her life for our freedoms. It weakens our intelligence-sharing relationships with allies. It will signal to other disturbed or disgruntled officers that there are no meaningful consequences in the event that they opt to mimic Snowden and seek 15 minutes of fame and perhaps a few pieces of silver while selling out their country rather than pursuing lawful whistleblower routes. Once again, Donald Trump proves his presidency is all about him, America be damned.
Peter D. Zimmerman, a physicist, was chief scientist of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under then-Chairman Joseph R. Biden, Jr. He is emeritus professor of science and security at King’s College London. Gail Helt is a former intelligence officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. She now teaches security and intelligence courses at a small liberal arts school in Tennessee. Both are members of The Steady State.