President Trump will probably not pardon Snowden, but either way, it is problematic
President Obama’s reign has come to a close. America has now officially accepted its new commander-in-chief; Donald Trump. But just before Mr Obama finished up his time in office, there were a few things left for him to do. One of them includes deciding whether to pardon Edward Snowden.
This debate officially kicked off in September, when the pardonsnowden.org campaign was launched in New York, where Mr Snowden made an appearance via live stream from Russia. So far the campaign has not been short of support; a number of big names have committed themselves to the cause, including Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Wozniak, and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who played as Mr Snowden in a recent film telling the story of the revelations made by the former CIA agent nearly four years ago).
Now that the baton has been passed on to President Trump, the decision is in his hands. But it seems unlikely that he will grant Mr Snowden his pardon. The President was “troubled” by Obama’s decision to reduce the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who in 2009 leaked classified American government documents. Government officials when Obama was in office believed that the damage Snowden has caused was far more than that caused by Manning, and the Trump administration is unlikely to think the opposite.
The predicament that Snowden has created is one of great difficulty because both pardoning him and not pardoning him could have adverse consequences.
If forgiven, it may give a mandate for more whistleblowers to emerge and the unwanted spilling of secrets and confidential information. This causes two problems. The first is that it puts people in the intelligence community in danger. In 2015 it was reported that Britain’s MI6 pulled out agents from “hostile countries” after Russia and China obtained top-secret information leaked by Mr Snowden. While in this instance nobody had been harmed, it shows the potential danger that the Snowden leaks can cause. Revealing such secrets may be to promote a legitimate cause (online privacy to be specific) but such revelations can have costs too.
Furthermore, a second problem is that it could undermine and weaken the intelligence operations carried out by America aimed to make the country safer. It is a valid argument that revealing the potential misconduct and possible illegality of the actions of the intelligence community is a way to hold the government to account. After the NSA’s mass collection of electronic communications programs were revealed, legislation was passed to better protect consumer privacy and prevent electronic surveillance without warrants.
But to hold the government to account by exposing its misconduct to the world is perhaps not always the best way. These surveillance programs are designed to catch out terrorists and other criminals. If the methods being used by the intelligence agencies become known to these adversaries, then they are likely to take action to avoid detection, like using VPNs (virtual private networks) to encrypt their communications thus making them harder to decipher. The chances of foiling any terrorist plot or stopping dangerous criminal activity become a lot lower.
As a result surveillance programs will have to be changed and updated, which costs money, time and resources. “Snowden handed terrorists a copy of our country’s playbook and now we are paying the price,” said former Army Officer and FBI agent Mike Rogers. Spilling secrets can thus be more advantageous for the enemy than may be initially thought.
Therefore, by pardoning Snowden for his leaks, it is quite possible that it may encourage others in the intelligence community to follow the same in the hope that they may experience the same fate. It is perhaps unlikely, though, that it would cause mass numbers of secret service agents to start blowing the whistle, but due to the great significance of Snowden’s revelations, pardoning his actions may seem more justified in following. Such a movement would threaten the very workings of the intelligence community altogether, by undermining one of the cornerstones of its work; secrecy.
Accordingly, why not choose the alternative and not give Mr Snowden his pardon? But even this option is not all good. If he is not pardoned, his effort to trigger a debate about privacy, and avoiding the possible risk of a tyrannical state, will be tainted.
While the means may have not been the best, the ends have value nevertheless. The revelations did do more than trigger a debate, as it also encouraged greater transparency. Before Snowden, surveillance requests by the NSA to the courts were not widely known. Now, these details are published every year. The US government has now shifted towards a more transparent intelligence community in an attempt to rid some of the doubt and criticism which has clouded it ever since the revelations.
But if the Trump administration chooses not pardon Snowden it would hinder this progression to greater protection of civil liberties in the digital age. The concerns that Mr Snowden has highlighted are of great importance. The sufficient safeguards needed to ensure that intelligence agencies can conduct their work while not encroaching upon user privacy may not now be in place had it not been for Mr Snowden’s leaks. As long as he remains an outlaw, all he has done to promote a debate which is very much in the public interest will be tarnished in such a way that could discourage others from revealing the questionable actions of the government. As Mr Snowden has said himself, if “people reporting wrongdoing of the most serious nature have to basically stand up and light themselves on fire, we are very quickly going to find ourselves out of volunteers the very moment when society needs them the most.”
Whether Mr Snowden is pardoned or not, the world will never forget what he has done. The term ‘digital privacy’ had no real significance before his revelations of the NSA, but now it plays such a vital role in government policy, the efforts of human rights groups and the workings of plenty of other organisations as well as businesses. There is no guarantee that such an issue would be acknowledged in the same way it is today barring Mr Snowden’s leaks, but it can definitely be said that they certainly are now because of him. Pardoned or not, the Edward effect is here to stay.