By Frank Snepp
Los Angeles : Granting Edward Snowden clemency, as many have urged, would send a terrible message to other potential whistle-blowers. Yes, he may have sparked an important national privacy debate, but he did so through reprehensible actions that harmed national security.
If that’s a harsh verdict, I have earned the right to it. In terms of sheer media hype, I was the Snowden of my day, a disaffected ex-spy who, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, rocked the security community by publishing a memoir about intelligence failures I’d witnessed as a CIA officer during the last years of the Vietnam War. I did so only after the agency backhanded my repeated requests for an in-house review of our mistakes and refused to help me or anyone else rescue Vietnamese allies abandoned during the evacuation of Saigon.
Government prosecutors never accused me of betraying classified secrets. But in 1980, the Supreme Court decided that I had “irreparably harmed” national security by publishing my book without official approval, in violation of CIA nondisclosure agreements. This, the court said, harmed the government’s ability to prevent serious leaks.
The ruling left me destitute, stigmatized and gagged for life, required to clear with the CIA all my spy-related writings, including this one, with the threat of jail time if I screw up. The First Amendment also took a hit with the rulings in my case. Now, all intelligence alumni, Snowden included, can be severely punished for merely speaking out about their work, regardless of whether what they say contains any classified information.
Yet, for all that I suffered personally, I never ran or tried to hide. And when the time came to face the music, I never bargained for mercy. I simply took my lumps, accepting them as the price we pay in a democracy for the right to speak out.
Snowden has violated these precepts. He argues lamely that he decided not to raise his privacy concerns through “official channels” because of harsh treatment he’d received from a superior in 2009 for hacking into his own encrypted personnel files. He says he was turned off by the legal system because whistle-blowing cases have not gone well for defendants.
I could have told him that. Honest whistle-blowing is a blood sport, the only reward for which is knowing you tried to do the right thing.
Snowden also insists defensively that he doesn’t want to hurt vital intelligence programs. Yet even his favored media outlets — Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the Washington Post and the New York Times — have withheld, out of concern for national security, some of the stolen documents he considered appropriate for release.
He claims his only concern is for privacy. But many of his leaks, like those exposing National Security Agency operations against Chinese targets, and those involving critics and allies in Europe and Latin America, have nothing to do with Fourth Amendment protections for American citizens and everything to do with ingratiating himself with potential benefactors, from Beijing to Moscow.
Had he read though his stolen documents, moreover, he would have realized that Russia and China are as aggressive as anyone on the planet in attacking our digital firewalls. If he were to cripple the NSA, which seems to be his real purpose, he would simply be sabotaging our defenses against governments that abhor our constitutional values, including privacy rights.
Equally troubling, Snowden has abdicated moral responsibility by handing off much of what he stole to Laura Poitras, a freelance journalist, and Glenn Greenwald, formerly of the Guardian, and allowing them to decide what should be published.
Greenwald says encrypted copies also have been given to other parties and that, if something happens to Snowden, “all the information will be revealed and it could be (the government’s) worst nightmare.”
One problem with the reporting by Greenwald and Poitras has been that, in relying so heavily on the documents supplied by Snowden, it fails to provide context. From reading their stories, for example, you’d know little about official steps to minimize NSA privacy threats.
Yet as we have learned from other recent disclosures — largely official counter-leaks — the secret court created in 1978 to police NSA programs has been working diligently, if too secretly, to fulfill its mission.
Last May, Snowden told the Washington Post that he intended to seek asylum and that he “wanted to embolden others to step forward … by showing that they can win.” His statement wasn’t a paean to accountability but a Pied Piper’s manifesto aimed at tempting others into heisting and fencing official secrets in the belief they’d never have to answer for it.
Ironically, the very enormity of Snowden’s security breach could now help him realize this goal. After trying for months to determine how much damage he has done, one senior NSA official stated recently that he favors executive clemency for Snowden in exchange for his help in identifying and retrieving all the secrets he has stolen. If the president buys into this bargain, it will simply signal to all aspiring copycats that if you steal enough secrets to blackmail the government, you have nothing to fear.
Snepp, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, has written two CIA memoirs. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.