Obama should not only pardon Edward Snowden, he should make it conditional on Snowden accepting a position as director of the NSA.
Where did I get this crazy idea? From Snowden himself, though not explicitly. I was reading some excerpts from Barton Gellman’s recent interview with Snowden in Moscow. This passage really made me stop and think:
In his interview with The Post, Snowden noted matter-of-factly that Standard Form 312, the classified-information nondisclosure agreement, is a civil contract. He signed it, but he pledged his fealty elsewhere. “The oath of allegiance is not an oath of secrecy,” he said. “That is an oath to the Constitution. That is the oath that I kept that Keith Alexander and James Clapper did not.” People who accuse him of disloyalty, he said, mistake his purpose. “I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA,” he said. “I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don’t realize it.”
I had to ask myself, what could this guy be thinking? Since June we’ve seen it sometimes takes a while for Snowden’s words to sink in. His style is not self-aggrandizing, but rather the opposite. We’ve seen the meaning or truth of his words only becomes apparent over time, as more information comes out. Seven months after Snowden started this debate, we are still trying to get our brains wrapped around the immensity of the problems we now acknowledge our intelligence operations have created in the realm of security, cryptography, internet stewardship, international relations, public/private partnerships, democratic governance and ecommerce, to name just a few.
The debate Snowden started is as vast and all-encompassing as the surveillance systems he exposed. But at the core of it is trust. Trust which has been broken and needs to be restored. How can we trust that the US government and its corporate partners can limit surveillance to what is reasonable in pursuit of international terrorists? How can we trust that the US government can be a benevolent steward of the internet and not undermine cryptographic systems, cloud services and networking hardware? How can we ever trust the words of our top intelligence officials when they have repeatedly lied to Congress and the public? How can an international consumer give their credit card number to a US company and be confident it’s not ending up in an NSA or private partner database?
The NSA urgently needs to be reformed, and we need someone in charge of it who has shown they not only understand the technical systems, but that they can be trusted. This is not an easy task now that the trust has been broken. Edward Snowden did not break that trust. He exposed how it had been broken in secret by our government and its private co-conspirators. He exposed, as a federal judge recently ruled, a program completely at odds with the Constitution and a democratic society. This system of mass surveillance, while hugely profitable for the companies involved, has not been essential in stopping a single terrorist attack, according to a recent government review. Are we to give up everything else for this system that does not even work as advertised? The whole world recognizes this is out of control and urgently needs to be reformed.
By all evidence, Snowden works on this problem every day. He is, in exile, an outsider who is really the ultimate insider. Though his words have been attacked and misrepresented, Snowden has actually been honest, prescient, patriotic and trustworthy since he first ignited the surveillance debate. Although he betrayed the confidence of his peers, and broke his oath of secrecy, he appears to only have done so after all other practical avenues were exhausted and in response to a higher calling.
In fact, knowing what I know now, if I were managing Snowden, a guy who kept a copy of the Constitution on his desk, wore an EFF NSA hoodie, and was constantly yammering about NSA’s overreach, I would have kept a closer eye on that guy unless I was secretly cheering him on. He did take the obvious next step, and it’s frankly amazing that this wasn’t anticipated by his managers or coworkers. They could have easily put in place systems that would have caught him. Snowden had even suggested security procedures that probably would have prevented his own disclosures, but they were rejected by people who should have known better. So, now we see that not only was Snowden the one guy who was willing to uphold the Constitution at great personal risk, we also see that he completely outsmarted the supposed best and brightest.
No, outsmarted is not a strong enough word. Edward Snowden intellectually ran circles around these guys, and continues to do so. Not only does Snowden have the upper hand morally and Constitutionally, he also has the upper hand operationally. I would argue this guy is the best we have. The real crime is that he is languishing as a “house cat” in Russia instead of working to repair this system he exposed exactly because he did understand it better than anyone else. There may be people who have greater knowledge of the technical systems than Snowden, but they would be insiders who could not be trusted, because they have proven themselves to be part of the problem rather than the solution. Snowden understood the larger context as well as the details of the technical systems. That’s clearly why he did what he did. Leaving Snowden in Russia when he could be helping to solve these problems is the height of self-defeating arrogant stupidity.
The people in charge lied, and Edward Snowden told the truth. I take him at his word that he is still working for the NSA, and I think we need to just make it official. This is the only practical solution to the problems we have created with the excesses of our surveillance systems.
It’s one thing to make the moral argument that Snowden should be pardoned or he’s a hero. Many others have made that argument already. Clearly that is not my argument. I’m arguing that on grounds of our national security we urgently need the best guy for the job to oversee this transition to an NSA that protects and enhances the security of our electronic communications rather than undermining and breaking them. The man who has proven he has the smarts and the commitment to make it happen is Snowden.
This is the one move that could restore the credibility of the organization and in many ways the US government, with the public and internationally. There is on the face of it, no one else who could be trusted to roll back the surveillance state to a level that is appropriate, legal, and necessary. Only Snowden has the credibility, he is the only one the public could trust to do this. We know we can trust him because he has already put his life on the line to do this. He is uniquely suited to be the one to oversee this transition, both because of the incredible personal commitment he has shown to the cause, and his deep technical knowledge of the systems involved.
The consequences of not pursuing this logical course of action will be devastating for the the US tech industry and and our economy. All of Silicon Valley knows this. We live in a different world now where the old paradigms of secrecy and top-down control are widely seen as the problem not the solution. We need people in charge who get this. Otherwise the problem will only get worse, and there will be no such transition to a government that has regained trust, and deserves to be trusted.
Snowden certainly betrayed his organization as it was (mal)functioning at the time. He betrayed his coworkers and oath of secrecy. Maybe he would have a hard time asserting control over the agency that currently sees him as public enemy number one. Maybe there are people there so mad at him they’d want to kill him. So what? This is about reasserting democratic control over a system that has long exceeded it, and doing what’s right for our national security from a practical point of view. Snowden has shown he is up for the challenge.
If Obama were to take the completely implausible, but absolutely practical solution being suggested here, we could restore trust. We could restore our credibility as a nation, and as a good steward of an increasingly connected global communications network which we hope stays that way. To do otherwise will likely imperil our future, allow the unconstitutional excesses to continue and accelerate our national decline. We deserve better. We need people in charge who get it. That’s why we need Snowden in charge of reforming NSA. No one else has the dual requirements of the technical knowledge and public credibility necessary to fix this. And as they say, let the punishment fit the crime.