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How Will the Government Handle NSA Surveillance Leaker Edward Snowden?

Now that Edward Snowden has come forward as the NSA surveillance program leak, the government must decide how to handle his case…as a criminal, whistleblower, or both.

Published: June 11, 2013

We know that Edward J. Snowden disclosed secrets about U.S. surveillance programs. But that’s where the consensus ends. Lawmakers accuse him of treason, but he portrays himself as a truth teller, giving the American people information that they need to know. If Snowden can be seen as either a brave whistle-blower or a reckless traitor, how should the government handle his case?

Faiza Patel, along with other national security experts, weighs in on the debate in New York Times Room for Debate series.

The Government Must Be Judicious

Edward Snowden was a low-level contract employee of the National Security Agency whose conscience dictated that he expose the agency’s surveillance programs. Bradley Manning—whose court-martial is ongoing—was a private serving in Iraq who said his experience inspired him to set off a debate on the hidden damage caused by U.S foreign policy. Both are young and idealistic, but after that the resemblance fades.

The differences between what these two men did are important as the Administration weighs how aggressively to pursue Snowden. The disparity between the 700,000 plus documents that Manning released and the handful that Snowden has thus far made public is striking. There is no way Manning could have reviewed all the information he provided Wikileaks, even cursorily. He did a data dump, making sensitive documents public without knowing what was in all of them.

While we don’t know the full extent of what Snowden may yet reveal, it seems that he was more discerning and his claim that he carefully selected the documents he disclosed to ensure that they were legitimately in the public interest may be credible.

Snowden provided confirmation of a program that was conceived and blessed by the government’s top echelons. The very existence of a seven-year long N.S.A. program to collect indiscriminately the phone records of millions of Americans is surely something that should not have been secret in the first place. Just ask the senators who had tried unsuccessfully to bring it to light.

In both cases, the government has claimed that national security suffered catastrophic harm. That assertion seemed more credible in Manning’s case, since his cache of documents may have revealed the identities of U.S. informants. It is less so when we’re talking about the broad contours of surveillance programs.

Indeed, even in the few days since the stories broke, some information about the N.S.A. program has been declassified. Compared to its usual stance, the intelligence community has become positively loquacious, issuing fact sheets and other tidbits almost daily.

These differences don’t mean that Snowden will escape punishment. But the administration should weigh them as it considers the penalty it will seek. Manning is being prosecuted for a crime that could lead to life in prison without parole, even though he has already pleaded guilty to charges that could land him behind bars for 20 years. Other whistleblowers have been allowed to plead in exchange for far lighter sentences, in the range of 20 to 30 months.

Where on this spectrum Snowden falls will be the true test of whether the administration recognizes his role in triggering a national debate on the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties that President Obama says he welcomes.