President Obama will grant his last pardons by January 20, 2017, his final day in office. With that in mind, and with Oliver Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic slated for release this fall, I sat down with Ben Wizner in July to ask about the NSA whistle-blower’s chances of coming home soon. Wizner is Snowden’s attorney; he also directs the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
Edward Snowden’s Twitter page reads: “I used to work for the government. Now I work for the public.” It’s been three years since his revelations about NSA spying were first published. Remind us: How many documents did Snowden release to the public?
The number he released to the public is zero. Every document that’s been published from what we now call the “Snowden archive” was published after a news organization made a determination that publishing that document, or portions of it, was in the public interest and would not cause harm to national security. Snowden’s instructions to the journalists he entrusted with the archive were that they were to use their judgment, not his. And that they were in all instances to consult with government officials, give them an opportunity to raise specific objections, but then make their own determination about what should be published—or not.
There was a lot of talk about the extensive harm to our national security done by Snowden’s revelations—“grave and irreparable” harm, we were told by government officials. What do we know about the extent of that harm?
We don’t know anything. We don’t know anything because no government official has come forward with any remotely specific or credible evidence that there has been harm.
The United States doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to bring Snowden back and put him on trial.
There is no extradition treaty with Russia. The United States tried pretty hard in the summer of 2013. My sense is that three years down the line, the US takes a different view. They realize it would do huge damage to our soft power among important allies, and particularly among a youth generation, if we were to put Snowden on trial for espionage after the contributions he’s made to privacy and security around the world. Snowden’s reputation has improved considerably inside the US, but in most other countries he’s viewed as a hero. For us to lock him away as if he were no different than a spy would damage the US’s reputation and its authority in the world for no good reason. For example, the European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution calling on member states not to extradite Snowden if he appears in those countries, saying the charges against him under the Espionage Act are political and that he should be entitled to asylum. It’s not a binding resolution, but it’s a real milestone in the progress he’s made—from hunted fugitive to global thinker and leader on these issues.