Tis the season for presidential pardons, and all throughout the land the peasants are calling for their Caesar to release not Barabbas this time but the other guy. The "other guy" isn't exactly Jesus of course, but he is nonetheless rather well known for staunchly "speaking truth to power". I'll avoid a re-cap of the shenanigans at play, instead summing it all up by pointing out that yes, the "other guy" -- Edward Snowden -- did most certainly break the law. However, is breaking the law always such a bad thing? As Martin Luther King Jr. put it,
To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor. Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. The oppressed must never allow the conscience of the oppressor to slumber.
King's and Snowden's country, the United States, has a bit of a history when it comes to preferring freedom from obtrusive government authority as well as of noncompliance when it comes to unjust laws. This began of course with the Boston Tea Party, which was not only an illegal act of disobedience but eventually led to revolution and freedom (of sorts) from Great Britain. Proceeding this were abolitionists who refused to bow down to Fugitive Slave laws, followed by the Civil Rights Movement, and more. On the other hand, what Adolf Hitler did to Jews, political dissidents and other "miscreants" was perfectly legal. In other words, there's lawful and unlawful, but there's also right and wrong.
The question then is: Should Barack Obama pardon Edward Snowden? When recently asked this by German media outlet Der Speigel, this is what Obama had to say in reply:
I can't pardon somebody who hasn't gone before a court and presented themselves, so that's not something that I would comment on at this point. I think that Mr. Snowden raised some legitimate concerns. How he did it was something that did not follow the procedures and practices of our intelligence community. If everybody took the approach that I make my own decisions about these issues, then it would be very hard to have an organized government or any kind of national security system.
At the point at which Mr. Snowden wants to present himself before the legal authorities and make his arguments or have his lawyers make his arguments, then I think those issues come into play. Until that time, what I've tried to suggest -- both to the American people, but also to the world -- is that we do have to balance this issue of privacy and security. Those who pretend that there's no balance that has to be struck and think we can take a 100-percent absolutist approach to protecting privacy don't recognize that governments are going to be under an enormous burden to prevent the kinds of terrorist acts that not only harm individuals, but also can distort our society and our politics in very dangerous ways.
And those who think that security is the only thing and don't care about privacy also have it wrong.
Come again? Did Obama just say that the very second Snowden "goes before a court and presents himself" that he'd have him pardoned? Am I missing something here?
Of course I am, because that's undoubtedly not what Obama was saying in the slightest with his faux addressing of the issue, made obvious when we realize that Obama's statement is incorrect several times over (made all the more curious since Obama was a constitutional lawyer prior to becoming president). Because if we go back just a few decades we see that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon before he had been indicted, and if we go back just a few months (we're talking January of 2016) we see that Obama himself pardoned three dual U.S.-Iranian citizens who had yet to be charged. That Snowden can't be pardoned is therefore factually untrue, something that Obama must very well know.
To then suggest that Snowden would actually have a chance to "make his arguments" is also patently false, and which is hard to imagine Obama not being aware of either. Since Snowden is charged under the draconian WWI Espionage Act (meant for punishing foreign spies), this means that he'd be given zero opportunity to make his case before his peers -- something that happened to Daniel Ellsberg when he was on trial.
Could this all be evidence of Obama hitting senility a bit early? Although one might somewhat hope so, it's probably more likely the case that Obama's interests simply lie elsewhere. Because the fact of the matter is that over the span of two national elections Obama raised millions of dollars from Wall Street donors, a faction that in return got exactly what it paid for. As Ron Suskind pointed out in his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, Obama's appointment of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner rendered any reformation of Wall Street moot from the get-go. In describing Obama's first meeting with the "golden thirteen" (which included JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein), and after Obama had just pointed out that "My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks", Suskind conveys that
After a moment, the tension in the room seemed to lift: the bankers realized he [Obama] was talking about voluntary limits on compensation until the storm of public anger passed. It would be for show.
Following that, there was
Nothing to worry about. Whereas Roosevelt had pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said, "I welcome their hate," Obama was saying, "How can I help?" With palpable relief, the CEOs carried the discussion, talking, easily now, about credit conditions and how loan demand was soft because it should be: businesses were already overleveraged.
It should be no surprise then that not only have the banks gotten bigger under Obama's administration, but that none of the bankers -- whose fraudulent behaviour collapsed the United States' housing market and then its economy (and then many of the world's other economies) -- saw any criminal prosecution. Was Obama hindered from taking action on this due to an "obstructionist Republican Congress that undermined Obama's presidency"? Hardly, particularly when "hope and change" was essentially a well-marketed cover for a protection racket.
Having therefore let the Band of Barabbas' go hog-wild, and having no intention of pardoning Snowden, I can't help but wonder why Obama doesn't just do what his heart must truly desire -- to pardon the boldest Band of Barabbas member of all, Bernie Madoff.