Philip J. Crowley
Professor of Practice and Fellow
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, George Washington University
The presentation will explore three concepts related to the Snowden case:
- Who is a whistleblower?
- What is the law?
- What is a crime?
In April, 2014, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras received the George Polk Award National Security Reporting and two days later Pulitzer Prize Committee gave the Award for Public Service to the Washington Post and the Guardian US for their coverage of secret surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). The reporting awarded these prestigious prizes was based on classified documents disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who undoubtedly broke the law when he revealed details of global electronic surveillance by the United States government. At the same time, Snowden and his supporters argue that the NSA violated the US Constitution when the agency engaged in wholesale surveillance of Americans.
The clash between these two facts suggests that we are facing a legal and political turning point as we consider the disclosures and the plight of Edward Snowden. On the one hand, the Department of Justice has charged him with breaking the law, but on the other, the public sees that the law (withholding from the public the knowledge that it is subject to “likely” unconstitutional surveillance) represents a great injustice and potentially a crime. Additionally, Snowden disclosed activities that are not illegal in the United States, although many people abroad find them offensive.
Understandably, the Snowden disclosures evoke legal confusion and raise questions about the application of the law per se. Resolving them requires understanding the legal system from a larger perspective and recognizing that – although principles are relatively fixed – legal statutes change to reflect the prevailing sentiment about a given issue, as well as the real balance of political power. In fact, many practices that were once legal are now viewed with revulsion, and many practices that were once viewed with revulsion are now legal. To determine whether the Snowden case represents a turning point in our political tolerance for surveillance, we must consider two issues:
- How should a whistleblower be treated who revealed classified information about both legal programs, as well as potentially illegal operations?
- Should there be clemency for a whistleblower who has broken the law but whose disclosures have had an overall salutary effect on democratic governance, as evidenced by concrete reform proposals?