Three years after Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance program, Eric Holder has decided that Snowden may have done the right thing after all. His whistleblowing was “a public service,” the Obama administration’s former attorney general said on a podcast released May 30. Snowden should still be prosecuted, Holder added—leaking top-secret documents is illegal, after all—but his disclosures helped in “raising the debate.”
Snowden welcomed Holder’s about-face, which buttresses Snowden’s longstanding offer to return home and face trial if he is allowed to offer a “public-interest” defense for his actions. In a tweet, Snowden seemed bemused but hopeful about the evolution in officialdom’s views:
2013: It’s treason!
2014: Maybe not, but it was reckless
2015: Still, technically it was unlawful
2016: It was a public service but
Meanwhile, dramatic new disclosures offer fresh insights into why Snowden did what he did and raise tantalizing questions about additional secrets that may lurk in the documents he released. On May 22, my own exposé of a secret new chapter in Snowden’s story was published in my book, Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden. The exposé details extraordinary revelations from John Crane, a former senior Defense Department official who has come forward publicly for the first time about what he witnessed inside the Pentagon.
A solidly built Virginian with flecks of gray in a neatly trimmed chinstrap beard, Crane had been an assistant inspector general at the Pentagon, where he’d handled whistleblower cases from 2004 until 2013, when his bosses forced him out because he insisted on standing up for the legal treatment of whistleblowers. In dozens of hours of interviews, Crane told me how his superiors, allegedly, broke the law repeatedly while dealing with whistleblowers—obstructing justice, withholding and probably destroying evidence, and then lying to a federal judge about it, among other crimes.
Given this bureaucratic hostility to whistleblowers, Crane said he understood why Snowden might decide his only workable option for exposing the NSA’s surveillance was to break the law by leaking documents to the press. Yet Crane lamented Snowden’s actions. “Someone like Snowden should not have felt the need to harm himself just to do the right thing,” Crane told me.
“When I was at NSA, everybody knew that for anything more serious than workplace harassment, going through the official process was a career-ender at best,” Snowden told my Guardian colleague Ewen MacAskill in response to Crane’s revelations. “If your boss in the mailroom lies on his timesheets, the [inspector general] might look into it. But if you’re [former NSA executive] Thomas Drake, and you find out the president of the United States ordered the warrantless wiretapping of everyone in the country, what’s the IG going to do? They’re going to flush it, and you with it.”