Edward Snowden: Whistle-blower or Threat to National Security?

Director of SMPA’s Graduate Studies Program Silvio Waisboard weighs in on the New York Times' call for clemency.

Edward Snowden, the informant behind the largest breach of classified documents since the Pentagon Papers has been the subject of media controversy for his actions. Photo Credit Laura Poitras, Praxis Films
January 08, 2014

By Brittney Dunkins

Does Edward Snowden deserve clemency?

The New York Times and the Guardian think so.

In June, just weeks after the Guardian published the first in a series of revelatory articles written by Glenn Greenwald about spy tactics used by the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, was revealed to be the informant, prompting a media firestorm.

According to Mr. Snowden, and two federal judges, the scope of the NSA’s practices, including phone record collection and direct collection of data from Facebook, Apple, Google and other networks, violated the Constitution and privacy of U.S. citizens.

Mr. Snowden fled the country in June and has since been charged with two violations of the Espionage Act. President Barack Obama stood by the charges in August in a statement to media.

The national debate came to a boiling point last week, when the New York Times Editorial board asked for clemency for Mr. Snowden. The editorial came on the heels of a similar article published by the Guardian that called for a full pardon.

George Washington Today sat down with Silvio Waisboard, director of the graduate studies program in the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, to discuss the issues of the case, the role of whistle-blowers in the media and the New York Times’ decision to support Mr. Snowden.

Q: The New York Times editorial board characterized Mr. Snowden as a whistle-blower for his actions in supplying information about classified NSA tactics to Mr. Greenwald. Do you believe this characterization is warranted and why?

A: Yes, what Mr. Snowden did fits typical characterizations of whistle-blower. Both supporters and critics have presented him along these lines as part of a tradition of whistle-blowers in U.S. journalism and politics. Also, official concerns and actions against him, including two violations of the Espionage Act, fit preexisting concerns in the White House about potential actions of whistle-blowers.

Q:  What is the role of a whistle-blower in working with journalists to fuel investigative journalism? Are there examples of past situations when these collaborative relationships have revealed important information to the American people?

A: Yes, there are many examples of whistle-blowers collaborating with journalists to produce investigative pieces. Whistle-blowers provide key information that is almost impossible for journalists to obtain without cooperation "from the inside.” Perhaps the most comparable reference is Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. Although his case is not identical to Snowden's, Mr. Ellsberg has identified Mr. Snowden as having done work similar to what he did back in the day.

Q: Can you provide an analysis of the New York Times’ decision to publish this editorial, as a leader in American journalism? Especially considering that the views of the Editorial Board are a direct representation of the board, the publisher and the editor?

A: I think it's remarkable the New York Times has decided to do this and ask for clemency, particularly given the bad press Mr. Snowden and Mr. Greenwald received in mainstream media outlets since the beginning of this episode. Mr. Snowden represents a tradition in U.S. journalism of collaboration with insiders that sits uncomfortably with U.S. society because it questions central premises of national security and government secrecy. This collaboration has enraged high officials, including President Obama, who haven't minced adjectives to call Mr. Snowden. The New York Times’ piece received a great deal of attention, precisely because it was overwhelmingly positive about Mr. Snowden's action, despite some reservations.

Q: The Guardian newspaper has called for the U.S. government to pardon Snowden, and the New York Times has called for the government to stop the "vilification" of Snowden and offer him clemency. Do you have a sense of whether these public appeals could sway the government’s stance?

A: I doubt it. It is unlikely that the U.S. government will change its staunch opposition to Mr. Snowden and position on this matter just because of a New York Times editorial. It would contradict the official line of the past years and ongoing attempts to curb and prevent such actions through legal means.

Q: The central issues of the Snowden case revolve around violations of the privacy of U.S. citizens and a lack of transparency on the part of the government in its intelligence-gathering tactics. Where is the line for journalists in providing information to citizens and respecting the role of the government in conducting top-secret operations in the name of national security?

A: There are always two central "American" values in conflict in cases such as this – privacy vs. national security and official secrecy. What value is worth prioritizing? What matters? What's more important? Can we have one and the other?

The government doesn't think privacy is the most important value. It has justified certain actions in the name of "national security" and prosecuted dissidents on espionage charges. Journalists and news organizations need to decide whose interests should be prioritized and how both arguments should be weighed, even if full privacy seems a relic of the past in today's society. For more than a decade since 9/11, national security has taken priority over other concerns and issues, including privacy. Mr. Snowden’s case provides an opportunity for a broad public debate about whether those values are compatible or if privacy should be protected from government intrusion.