The real criminals are those he expose: the security state officials who illegally and unconstitutionally spied on innocent people by the millions, and who still do so.
A U.S. appellate court in September unanimously ruled that the NSA's program of mass domestic surveillance was illegal, as well as likely a violation of the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against "unreasonable searches and seizures." The court, and the broader public, knew about this illegal mass surveillance program created by the NSA only because Edward Snowden, while working inside that agency, discovered its existence and concluded in 2012 that the American public has the right to know about what was being secretly done to them and their privacy by their own government.
Upon making the decision to blow the whistle on this security state illegality, Snowden delivered the documents relating to that program and other then-unknown systems of mass online surveillance not by dumping them indiscriminately on the internet or selling them or passing them to foreign governments, but by providing them to journalists (including myself) with The Guardian, The Washington Post and other news outlets. The documents Snowden provided were accompanied by requests to report them responsibly. He thus relinquished the power entirely to make decisions about which documents would and would not be published, leaving those decisions exclusively to news outlets.
That meant that Snowden himself never made a single document publicly available; every document that was reported was the result of decisions by newsrooms around the world that their publication would be in the public interest and would not endanger innocent people. That method of whistleblowing chosen by Snowden patterned after the one Daniel Ellsberg used in 1971 to make the public aware of years of lying to the American public by the U.S. Government about the Vietnam War, when he gave the top-secret Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and asked them to report it in the public interest enabled journalists to inform the American citizenry about illegal and unconstitutional spying by the U.S. Government in the most responsible manner possible.
Indeed, the very first program we reported on June 6, 2013 was the mass domestic spying program which the appellate court just ruled was illegal and likely a violation of the constitutional rights of all Americans. That first article we published revealed a top secret court order under which "the National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers," and required major telecommunications carriers "on an 'ongoing, daily basis' to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries."
The months of reporting that followed, all singularly enabled by Snowden's courageous whistleblowing, triggered so much vital public debate about privacy and mass surveillance, and fostered so many legal and technological privacy reforms around the world, that the reporting earned virtually every award journalism has to give, including the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. For those who have not seen it, the 2014 documentary by Laura Poitras about the work Snowden did with journalists, Citizenfour, which received the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary, shows much of the Snowden story in real time and can be viewed on YouTube; the feature film "Snowden," available on Netflix and other platforms, separately explores the trajectory which Snowden traversed from enlisted U.S. Army soldier, CIA contractor and NSA expert to one of this generation's most consequential whistleblowers.
The recent appellate court ruling in U.S. v. Moalin, issued on September 2, emphasized the U.S. surveillance state's sustained law-breaking. "The telephony metadata collection program exceeded the scope of Congress's authorization" and "therefore violated that section of [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act]," the court concluded, referring to the 1978 law requiring the government to first obtain warrants before spying on the communications of U.S. citizens. Though its ruling of illegality meant it was unnecessary to rule definitively on the program's unconstitutionality, the court nonetheless noted that "the government may have violated the Fourth Amendment" with this spying program and warned of the dangers of "the collection of millions of  people's telephony metadata, and the ability to aggregate and analyze it."
In ruling the NSA's mass surveillance program illegal, the court noted the indispensable role Snowden played in enabling the protection of Americans' rights. It was Snowden, explained the court, who "made public the existence of NSA data collection programs." And, the court added, "Snowden's disclosure of the metadata program prompted significant public debate over the appropriate scope of government surveillance" and ultimately led to reform: "Congress passed the USA FREEDOM Act, which effectively ended the NSA's bulk telephony metadata collection program" and also "prohibited further bulk collection of phone records after November 28, 2015." Moreover, observed the court, it was "news articles in the wake of the Snowden disclosures [which] revealed that the government had been using evidence derived from foreign intelligence surveillance in criminal prosecutions without notifying the defendants of the surveillance."
This recent ruling is by no means the first time a court or other official body has declared illegal the spying programs which Snowden exposed. In 2015, CNN similarly reported that "a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday that the telephone metadata collection program, under which the National Security Agency gathers up millions of phone records on an ongoing daily basis, is illegal under the Patriot Act." The New York Times reported in 2014 that "an independent federal privacy watch dog has concluded that the National Security Agency's program to collect bulk phone call records has provided only 'minimal' benefits in counterterrorism efforts, is illegal and should be shut down." In 2018, The Guardian reported about the British equivalent of the NSA: "GCHQ's methods for bulk interception of online communications violated privacy and failed to provide sufficient surveillance safeguards, the European court of human rights has ruled."
Abuses of power by these agencies continue in full force. More recently, the Justice Department's Inspector General found in 2019 that the FBI deceived the FISA court with false statements to obtain a warrant to spy on former Trump 2016 campaign official Carter Page. A former FBI lawyer pled guilty to doctoring emails to obtain those spying warrants. A DOJ report found more material errors from the FBI in the spying process in 2019. Late last year, the FISA court itself "issued a strong and highly unusual public rebuke to the FBI" and, the prior year, "found that the FBI may have violated the rights of potentially millions of Americans including its own agents and informants by improperly searching through information obtained by the National Security Agency's mass surveillance program."
That is precisely the abuse Snowden acted to stop. And that is why the people and institutions across the political spectrum who have devoted themselves to protecting the right to privacy, safeguarding internet freedom and combating the abuses of the security state have advocated a pardon or clemency for Snowden: the ACLU, Sen. Rand Paul, The New York Times, Congressmen Matt Gaetz, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, internet pioneer Timothy Berners-Lee, Daniel Ellsberg, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey , press freedom groups , and international human rights and civil liberties groups . They have all argued that Snowden deserves clemency or a pardon.
Meanwhile, so many of the arguments against pardoning Snowden, and demanding his lifelong imprisonment or exile, come from the very security state operatives whose crimes he exposed. That includes John Brennan and James Clapper, along with their hawkish and neocon allies such as Susan Rice and Liz Cheney. And to make their case, these Deep State operatives and warmongers rely upon one demonstrable lie after the next. Indeed, it was their blatant lies in the first place that prompted Snowden to knowingly risk his liberty by revealing the existence of these mass surveillance programs.
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