Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Snowden and the Call for Clemency

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Since the Edward Snowden–National Security Agency (NSA) affair exploded in the media last summer, some world leaders, such as Angela Merkel of Germany, have since discovered that they were under some surveillance by the U.S. security apparatus. The negative reaction that followed the German chancellor discovering the bugging of her cell phone is evidence that NSA policies are more than an infringement of privacy if  they have created a diplomatic incident with a major ally to the Obama administration. 

NSA methods seem to be out of control when a country is caught spying on its allies. Concerned about this type of fallout, the Obama administration, along with its outside NSA review panel, is now considering sweeping changes to existing policies.

Just over the holiday season, The New York Times made the case for clemency for the former NSA contractor. British newspaper The Guardian, which has been the conduit of many of Edward Snowden’s sensational bombshells, called for an outright pardon by U.S. President Barack Obama.

What started out as a “hero versus traitor” debate about the actions of Edward Snowden is now becoming one about whether an individual whistleblower who broke the law while purportedly acting in defense of the U.S. constitution (the Fourth Amendment) should be tried for a ‘crime’ created by a governmental institution.

True, the debate between privacy and security, which is so crucial in a democratic society, remains intact. However, Snowden’s affirmation from his refuge in Russia that he possesses much more crucial information—and is willing to divulge it—has shifted the conversation to the status of Snowden, and whether the U.S. government needs a new approach in dealing with him.

Even in Canada there is interest in the debate, as it appears that Canadian authorities cooperated with the NSA in obtaining and sharing information. While national security is less prevalent in our politics, there is no doubt that the Snowden revelations about Canadian complicity has created unease north of the border.

The Times’ editorial clearly questions the implication that Snowden’s actions actually endangered national security. They see little evidence of this. Meanwhile, two federal judges have ruled against the constitutionality of NSA policy, while another has considered the NSA actions to be in conformity with the constitution. Clearly, this will make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Did the NSA commit a state crime? If so, was Snowden not justified in acting as a whistleblower and denouncing the policy? This seems to be the emerging dialectic about this case. At the end of the day it could determine the destiny of Snowden and the extent of the recriminations against him.

Clearly, we must not lose sight of the real issues–privacy, which is fundamental to individual rights and a free society, and security, which in a post 9-11 world remains an urgent preoccupation. The fact that Snowden is pushing his case from Putin’s Russia does little to make him a popular patriot deserving of clemency. To some key U.S. government officials, the very threat of divulging more information seems to put into question some of Snowden’s motives or his true patriotism. This serves the case advanced by his detractors in the U.S. Congress.

As the famous Daniel Ellsberg–Pentagon Papers saga, where Ellsberg was exonerated, clearly illustrated, the United States is a nation of laws and its constitution remains sacred. In an earlier blog, I also referred to U.S. “soft power’’ as being essential to its reputation and foreign policy standing as a nation of laws that respects its citizens, their individual rights and government institutions, and acts with the greatest respect for human dignity. We can ultimately expect these two factors to play a role in the Snowden affair.

So it is possible, as the current cases before the courts make their way through the judicial process, that the highest authorities of the U.S. government (both the executive and legislative branches) may someday consider giving Snowden clemency. That day, however, has not arrived.        


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

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