Edward Snowden's decision to leak a trove of secret documents outlining the NSA's surveillance program has elicited a range of reactions. Among his detractors, he's been called "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison," (Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker), who's committed "an act of treason," (Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee). To supporters, Snowden is a hero for showing that "our very humanity [is] being compromised by the blind implementation of machines in the name of making us safe," (author Douglas Rushkoff), one whom President Obama should "thank and offer him a job as a White House technology advisor," (American Conservative editor Scott McConnell). We host a debate with two guests: Chris Hedges, a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and Geoffrey Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Stone served as an informal adviser to President Obama in 2008, years after hiring him to teach constitutional law.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH : We turn now to a debate on Edward Snowden's decision to leak a trove of secret documents outlining the NSA's surveillance program. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Snowden described why he risked his career to leak the documents.
EDWARD SNOWDEN : I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government, that that's a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy. And if you do that in secret consistently, you know, as the government does when it wants to benefit from a secret action that it took, it will kind of get its officials a mandate to go, "Hey, you know, tell the press about this thing and that thing, so the public is on our side." But they rarely, if ever, do that when an abuse occurs. That falls to individual citizens. But they're typically maligned. You know, it becomes a thing of these people are against the country, they're against the government. But I'm not. I'm no different from anybody else. I don't have special skills. I'm just another guy who sits there, day to day, in the office, watches what happening--what's happening, and goes, "This is something that's not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong." And I'm willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say, "I didn't change these. I didn't modify the story. This is the truth. This is what's happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this."
NERMEEN SHAIKH : Edward Snowden's actions have elicited a range of reactions. Jeffrey Toobin of CNN and The New Yorker writes that Snowden is, quote, "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison." Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Snowden should not be considered a whistleblower because, quote, "what he did was an act of treason." And Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted, "I hope we follow Mr Snowden to the ends of the earth to bring him to justice," language echoing what Senator Graham once said in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
AMY GOODMAN : Meanwhile, Douglas Rushkoff wrote on CNN , quote, "Snowden is a hero because he realized [that] our very humanity was being compromised by the blind implementation of machines in the name of making us safe," unquote. The editor of The American Conservative, Scott McConnell, wrote, quote, "If Obama wanted to do something smart, he should thank Snowden and offer him a job as a White House technology advisor." And Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg sang Snowden's praises, writing, quote, "In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden's release of NSA material--and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago."
For more, we host a debate on Edward Snowden. Is he a hero or a criminal, whistleblower or a traitor? Here in New York, we're joined by Chris Hedges, senior fellow at The Nation Institute; was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times for 15 years, was part of a team of reporters that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for the paper's coverage of global terrorism; author, along with the cartoonist Joe Sacco, of the New York Times best-seller Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt . His most recent article is called "The Judicial Lynching of Bradley Manning" at Truthdig.org.
And in Chicago, Illinois, we're joined by Geoffrey Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. His recent piece for The Huffington Post is called "Edward Snowden: 'Hero or Traitor'?" Stone served as an informal adviser to President Obama in 2008. In 1992, 20 years ago, Professor Stone hired Obama to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Geoffrey Stone is also author of many books, including Top Secret: When Our Government Keeps Us in the Dark and Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism.
Chris Hedges, Geoffrey Stone, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Stone, I want to begin with you. In your piece, you say that Edward Snowden's actions were criminal. Can you explain why you feel he should be in jail?
GEOFFREY STONE : Well, there is a federal statute that makes it a crime for public employees who have been granted access to classified information to reveal that information to persons who are unauthorized to receive it. So, from a simple, straightforward, technical legal standpoint, there's absolutely no question that Snowden violated the law. And from that standpoint, if he's tried, he will be convicted, and he is in fact, from that perspective, a criminal. Whether one admires what he did is another question, but it doesn't have anything to do with whether or not what he did was unlawful.
The question, why I think he deserves punishment, is--he said it actually himself in the clip that you played earlier: He said, "I'm just an ordinary guy." Well, the fact is, he's just an ordinary guy with absolutely no expertise in public policy, in the law, in national security. He's a techie. He made the decision on his own, without any authorization, without any approval by the American people, to reveal classified information about which he had absolutely no expertise in terms of the danger to the nation, the value of the information to national security. That was a completely irresponsible and dangerous thing to do. Whether we think it was a positive thing in the long run or not is a separate question, but it was clearly criminal.
AMY GOODMAN : Chris Hedges, your response?
CHRIS HEDGES : Well, what we're really having a debate about is whether or not we're going to have a free press left or not. If there are no Snowdens, if there are no Mannings, if there are no Assanges, there will be no free press. And if the press--and let's not forget that Snowden gave this to The Guardian. This was filtered through a press organization in a classic sort of way whistleblowers provide public information about unconstitutional, criminal activity by their government to the public. So the notion that he's just some individual standing up and releasing stuff over the Internet is false.
But more importantly, what he has exposed essentially shows that anybody who reaches out to the press to expose fraud, crimes, unconstitutional activity, which this clearly appears to be, can be traced and shut down. And that's what's so frightening. So, we are at a situation now, and I speak as a former investigative reporter for The New York Times, by which any investigation into the inner workings of government has become impossible. That's the real debate.
NERMEEN SHAIKH : Well, Chris, how do you respond to the point that Geoffrey Stone made and how Snowden identified himself as an ordinary guy? Should any regular government employee or contractor be allowed to disclose whatever information he feels the public ought to be privy to, whether it's classified by the government and his employer or her employer or not?
CHRIS HEDGES : Well, if--that is what an act of conscience is. And reporters live--our sort of daily fare is built, investigative reporters, off of people who, within systems of power, have a conscience to expose activities by the power elite which are criminal in origin or unconstitutional. And that's precisely what he did. And he did it in the traditional way, which was going to a journalist, Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian, and having it vetted by that publication before it was put out to the public. Was it a criminal? Well, yes, but it was--I suppose, in a technical sense, it was criminal, but set against the larger crime that is being committed by the state. When you have a system by which criminals are in power, criminals on Wall Street who are able to carry out massive fraud with no kinds of repercussions or serious regulation or investigation, criminals who torture in our black sites, criminals who carry out targeted assassinations, criminals who lie to the American public to prosecute preemptive war, which under international law is illegal, if you are a strict legalist, as apparently Professor Stone is, what you're in essence doing is protecting criminal activity. I would argue that in large sections of our government it's the criminals who are in power.