- - Wednesday, September 21, 2016


With last week’s premiere of conspiracy-weaving director Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” acolytes and supporters of the former National Security Agency contractor are beating the drum for pardon, clemency or at least a sweetheart pretrial plea bargain to prepare for his triumphal return home.

I’ve not learned much about the film. Reviews are mixed, with better marks for drama than for history. It is a movie, after all. The trailer, which I have seen, has an appropriately ominous score, hushed voices and an outsized bogeyman in NSA surveillance — the stuff of many a Hollywood espionage flick. Maybe I’ll check out the feature when it hits Netflix or pay-per-view.


But I’m less interested in the film that I am in the “Free Edward Snowden” movement. I was particularly off-put a few months ago when erstwhile Attorney General Eric Holder seemed to give the idea some life. “We can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did,” he told David Axelrod, “but I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made.”

Although the White House and Loretta E. Lynch’s Justice Department let it be known that there are no deals on offer, Mr. Snowden has since gathered support. There are, of course, the predictively reflexive institutional players: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.

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Individuals who have signed on include the tech world’s Steve Wozniak (Apple co-founder), Steve Dorsey (Twitter CEO), and Joshua Bloch (chief Java architect).

They’re joined by the usual combat-government-secrecy gadflies: Daniel Ellsberg (of “The Pentagon Papers” fame), Jim Bamford (professional NSA critic), Glen Greenwald (self-described advocacy journalist) and Laura Poitras (documentary film maker).

Then there are the famous and near-famous: the ubiquitous George Soros, actors Danny Glover and Martin Sheen, actress Susan Sarandon, film maker Michael Moore and soured CIA analyst Melvin Goodman.

All of these folks probably think that I belong in a basket of “deplorables” since I would oppose any deal with Mr. Snowden. Since I think I can fairly book them as “unpersuadables’” what follows is not for them. Rather, it’s aimed at anyone out there thinking of joining them.

My advice: Don’t do it!!! Or at least think about these things before you do.

One. Mr. Snowden caused the greatest single hemorrhaging of legitimate American secrets in the history of the nation. Many would point to the debate on NSA’s metadata program that he no doubt accelerated (I would also add misshaped) as justification, but

Two. Little of what Mr. Snowden caused to be made public implicated your privacy or mine. It was mostly about how the United States (and our British and Australian allies) conduct legitimate, life-saving, nation-protecting foreign intelligence.

Don’t believe me? Visit Ben Wittes’ fabulous Lawfare blog (lawfareblog.com/snowden-revelations) and survey the damage. Check out what’s alleged about where NSA collects foreign intelligence, with whom the agency cooperates and what foreign entities it may target.

Legitimate foreign surveillance is hard to do. Mr. Snowden’s revelations make it even harder.

Nearly a year ago Rick Ledgett, NSA’s deputy director, told the BBC that “We’ve seen in the high hundreds of targets who have said, ‘Hey, we are vulnerable to these sorts of detection techniques and we need to change the way that we do that,’ and a number of them have.” That included terrorist organizations, one of which “had a mature operational plot directed against western Europe and the U.S.”

Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper has told us that Snowden’s revelations prompted the shutdown of the “single most important source of force protection warning for our people in Afghanistan.” Let me decode that sterile defense insider talk: Mr. Snowden’s actions made it more likely that some American families will greet their loved ones at a somber ceremony at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and NOT at a joyous family reunion.

The above names supporting a pardon for Mr. Snowden were drawn from the movement’s website. I went up and down the list several times. I couldn’t identify a single Marine or Army rifleman. I don’t expect many will be signing up.

Three. Despite all of his claimed operational savvy, Mr. Snowden did not know or adequately understand what he stole. He admitted to comedian John Oliver that he hadn’t actually read all the documents he turned over to journalists and, when confronted with some things regarding Iraq that he agreed were not properly redacted (removed) by his journalistic accomplices, Snowden conceded that that was “a f***-up.”

“F***-up,” indeed. Glen Greenwald reported that Mr. Snowden left the decision on what to publish to people like him. So it’s hard to tell whether it was Mr. Snowden or just the journalists who misread NSA slides about the so-called 702 or PRISM program and (wrongly) reported that NSA was directly accessing the servers of companies like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.

And it’s hard to tell if Mr. Snowden agrees that it was appropriate to report that the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ might be able to intercept the Russian president’s satellite phone. Or that it was a good idea to say that the NSA has collected draft email messages written by leaders of the Islamic State.

Mr. Snowden denies any responsibility. In April he told a Georgetown University audience that, “I never published a single story. They all went through independent journalism outlets” to decide what to print.

But in what moral universe is the provider of information relieved of responsibility for what those to whom he unlawfully gives the information do with it?

Please think about these kinds of things as you contemplate a Snowden pardon or even pre-approved leniency.

But don’t get me wrong. I still want the young man to come home. I really do.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at [email protected]

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