Regardless of political developments that may vindicate the actions of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the White House still maintains that he committed “very serious crimes” and should continue to face prosecution in the United States.
White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest was asked during a press briefing on June 1 about whether it was time to “reassess the persecution” of Snowden. All three branches of government have rejected the use of the Patriot Act to justify bulk data collection by the NSA, a program which Snowden revealed to the public.
“It’s not,” Earnest replied. “The fact is Mr. Snowden committed very serious crimes, and the US government and Department of Justice believe that he should face them.”
“That’s why we believe Mr. Snowden should return to the United States, and he will have the opportunity if he were to return to the United States to make that case in a court of law. But, obviously, our view on this is that he committed and is accused of very serious crimes.”
As a follow-up, Earnest was pressed on the fact that Snowden would not be able to make a public interest or whistleblower defense in court during a trial. He is charged with violating the Espionage Act. The Justice Department prosecutes it as a strict liability crime, which means motive does not matter. If a person causes “national defense” information to be made public without proper authorization, that is enough to convict them of committing a violation of the law.
“Would you be willing to at least talk to him about the circumstances in which you’ve said you’d give him a fair trial?”
Earnest suggested the Justice Department would have to handle something like that. He would not get into how that would play out. But, he added, “There exists mechanisms for whistleblowers to raise concerns about sensitive national security programs.”
“Releasing details of sensitive national security programs on the internet for everyone, including our adversaries, to see is inconsistent with those protocols that are established for protecting whistleblowers.”
Jesselyn Radack, an attorney who has represented Snowden, reacted, “Snowden did not release any documents on the internet. He provided documents to journalists, who used their editorial discretion to decide what was worthy and in the public interest to know.”
It is a “tried and true line,” which President Barack Obama’s administration has “trotted out in Espionage Act cases.” The argument is because terrorists read newspapers there will be grave harm, but it is generally not supported by facts.
When Snowden was at the NSA, he was working as a private contractor. Snowden did not have “proper channels” he could go through because the presidential policy directive put in place for “intelligence officers” excluded contractors. So, it is hard to figure out what “protocols” Earnest was referencing when he made his remarks.
Radack added, “As one of the attorneys representing Snowden, given the recent developments in the courts and Congress, it is clearly time to drop these charges against Mr. Snowden.”
It was not Obama that created this political moment where potential surveillance reforms were debated and senators spoke out against bulk data collection. It was Snowden—and a number of senators recognize this reality.
However, Earnest claimed that Obama should be the one credited with any surveillance reform that passes in Congress.
“To the extent that we’re talking about the president’s legacy, I would suspect that would be a logical conclusion from some historians that the president ended some of these programs that did raise concerns [among] those who prioritize privacy and civil liberties of the American people,” Earnest stated.
“This is consistent with the reforms that the president advocated a year and a half ago. And these are reforms that required the president and his team to expend significant amounts of political capital to achieve over the objection of Republicans.”
Yet, few senators have credited Obama for pushing reform. Politicians in Washington recognize that public opinion, which has been influenced by disclosures from Snowden, is why they are considering changes to policies.
A Pew Research Center poll recently found that few Americans support government holding on to their data in bulk. Only 6% were “very confident” that government can keep records “safe and secure.”
“[Sixty-five percent] of American adults believe there are not adequate limits on the telephone and internet data that the government collects.”