I was very surprised to read the New York Times editorial calling for clemency for Edward Snowden, less so to read Slate’s piece about why he won’t and shouldn’t get clemency, since it is difficult for me to imagine any scenario in which full clemency would be granted by this administration or in this geo-political climate. I expect Snowden to be on the run or in exile likely for the rest of his life.
Without knowing all the details of what he leaked, how he leaked them, and the explanations for his actions afterwards that led him to China and then Russia, I can’t in good conscience call for his clemency either. Even if I acknowledge that his leaks have better informed a critically important debate about the surveillance power of the government and the constitutional balance (or lack thereof) of the NSA’s programs, even if his stated motivations as a whistleblower are 100% true, and even if I acknowledge that, like Bradley Manning, there likely were no “legitimate” paths he could take to take to expose the truth to the public, I still can’t go so far as to say that they deserve clemency because I’m not in a position to have enough information to make a good judgement, and my guess is, if you’re reading this blog, neither do you.
My own (very small, insignificant except to those of us who were affected) experience with being a whistleblower was a wholly terrible and unpleasant experience. Exposing misconduct and bringing to light what (some) people in power do not want revealed is a dangerous undertaking, even when the stakes are much less than national security. It is fraught with difficult ethical and moral decisions about how much information and when to disclose and how to proceed, and at least in my experience, I had absolutely no way to fully appreciate all of the unintended consequences of my actions, and how many other (innocent in the scheme of things) people would be hurt by my choices, no matter how well meaning and good my intentions were when I started.
I’m not comparing myself to Snowden or Manning, of course, the situations were completely different and on a completely different scale of importance, but I can only draw from my own experience. I certainly felt that I had an obligation take responsibility for the fall-out, and I guess that is where my own, however insignificant, experience as a whistleblower leads me to feel critical of both Manning and Snowden’s decisions to hide and run from the path they chose.
Yes, it stinks that whistleblowers are often punished for trying to do the right thing, but if you choose to do battle with the powers-that-be, then you have a responsibility to stand up and say, “Yes, I did this, my conscience demanded I take action to right this wrong, and be damned the consequences to myself.” That is what sacrifice is, that is what a “hero” does, and that is not quite what either Manning or Snowden did. Even if their initial motivations were largely for the right reasons, even if there have been many good things to come of their disclosures, they still failed to see it through by trying to hide from or escape from the consequences of their choices.
What makes that a “wrong” is that all the untold number of (innocent in the scheme of things) people who paid a terrible price for their actions had no choice in the matter. The co-worker who gave Snowden a password because of trust or because he thought Snowden’s request was legitimate as a sysadmin who was later fired. The diplomats or soliders or, heck, full on spies whose careers were destroyed or lives were endangered by Manning’s or Snowden’s disclosures. Those people had no choice in the matter. They didn’t have an opportunity to hide or escape from the fall-out of those decisions, so why should Manning or Snowden?
When you set the ball in motion, you have a responsibility to see it through to the end, no matter how bitter that end may be. To do less may be only human, but it doesn’t meet my standard of “hero”.