Accused National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was handed a golden opportunity to justify himself Wednesday when he was asked by NBC's Brian Williams whether the American public should view his unauthorized release of thousands of classified U.S. government documents to the media as a principled act of civil disobedience or as a betrayal of his country — and he blew it.
The interview, taped last week, took place at a hotel in Moscow, where Mr. Snowden fled last year in order to avoid prosecution on espionage charges. Mr. Snowden spent much of the hour-long broadcast trying to convince Mr. Williams and the TV audience that he was actually a patriot, not a traitor. His actions, he said, were those of a whistleblower prompted by the noblest of motives: to alert his fellow citizens of the massive government wrongdoing involved in the NSA's secret surveillance programs targeting millions of Americans' private phone calls and emails.
Much of what Mr. Snowden had to say about the government's technical capacity to invade the privacy of ordinary citizens without their knowledge or consent surely resonated with a public that has become far more concerned about the scope and purposes of the NSA's activities than it was year ago, when the secret surveillance programs were first reported. Mr. Snowden kept reiterating that he felt it was his duty to reveal their existence in order to protect Americans' constitutional rights to privacy and freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.
But the crucial question came when Mr. Williams asked Mr. Snowden why he fled to Russia if he considered his disclosure of classified material an act of civil disobedience. Why didn't he return to the United States, as Secretary of State John Kerry has urged him to do, in order to face the charges against him at a public trial where he could argue the legitimacy of his motives and the gravity of the danger represented by the NSA's unchecked power to peer into the private lives of citizens?
Moreover, Mr. Williams reminded him, isn't the whole point of civil disobedience that it is driven by conscience, and that those who to practice it must also be willing to suffer the consequences for their actions?
Mr. Snowden's reply, in a nutshell, was that 1) he couldn't get a fair trial in the U.S. under the terms of the Espionage Act, and 2) that he was unwilling to risk spending years or possibly decades in prison because the criminal system was rigged against defendants in espionage cases. That, he said, would only discourage future whistleblowers from coming forward when they saw the government engaged in illegal activity carried out in secret.
But wait — nobody ever said you're only obligated to endure the consequences of your actions if those consequences are to your liking, and that if not, you're free to skip them altogether. Yet that is exactly what Mr. Snowden seemed to be saying. He suggested he would return to the U.S. if he can work out a plea deal with the Justice Department in advance that would require him to serve only a relatively light prison term — perhaps a year or so. Anything more than that, he said, would be unacceptable.
Does that sound like someone who broke the law out of conscience in full recognition that he should be prepared to endure the consequences of his actions? Not to us it doesn't. Mr. Snowden had a chance to reclaim the moral high ground he lost when he initially fled to Russia (en route to Cuba or Ecuador, he hoped) after his identity as the source of the leaked documents was revealed. None of those countries can be said to respect the privacy rights of their citizens or their right to freedom of expression. If Mr. Snowden was trying to make a point about limiting governments' intrusion into their citizens private lives, he could hardly have picked three worse examples of places where those limits are routinely violated.
If American viewers were looking for a credible explanation of why Mr. Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents that the U.S. says resulted in serious damage to the nation's security, they didn't get it on Wednesday. There is no question that Mr. Snowden revealed things about our government's activities that demanded reforms. But there is also no doubt that he broke his oath to protect the county and then fled to avoid facing the consequences of his crime. For that reason, we cannot see him as the hero he would like to be.
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