Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

History will pardon Snowden even if Obama won't



The relationship between the whistleblower and journalism has not always been a neat one. The tendency for symbiosis to become positively vengeful — much like Saturn eating his children — is evidenced in the Washington Post stance on Edward Snowden's whistleblowing activities.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward SnowdenHaving scooped up a Pulitzer working on the Snowden findings on massive invasions of privacy both in the United States and on a global scale, the paper got nasty.

There was little need for the paper to wade into these waters, but the editors obviously felt so strongly about Snowden it went for the jugular with seething conviction. The prompting probably came from the release of Oliver Stone's Snowden, which goes some way in creating a justification for the actions of the sub-contractor.

As Joseph Gordon-Levitt (pictured), who plays the title role, explained to ABC News Breakfast, 'personally, I think that what he did was a service to our country and to our world ... [but] I don't think anybody should take anybody else's word for it.'

In taking its stance, the Post's editorial reveals itself to be bombastically patriotic, clear that such interception programs as the mass, non-discriminating hoovering of PRISM was 'clearly legal and not clearly threatening privacy' (presumably it was obliquely doing so).

Such an assessment blissfully ignores a host of rulings at the federal level, much of this spearheaded by the ACLU, deeming such indiscriminate interception programs as unconstitutional. Indeed, Congress went so far as to attempt a reform of the intelligence community, albeit imperfectly, for the first time in four decades as a direct, if unacknowledged nod, to Snowden's 2013 revelations.

But for the Post, Snowden had done something 'Worse — far worse — he also leaked details of basically defensible international operations: cooperation with Scandinavian services against Russia; spying on the wife of an Osama bin Laden associate; and certain cyber operations in China.'

The stance taken by the Post is somewhat different from such papers as the LA Times. 'President Obama now has the opportunity,' explained Anthony Romero in its pages, 'to use his power [of pardon] proudly, in recognition of one of the most important acts of whistleblowing in modern history.'


"The whistleblower is held to a standard far higher than the person or institution he is exposing; he must consider the entire gamut of possibilities, with each exhaustion entirely a matter for authorities guarding the status quo."


The defence case for Snowden can then be made on two points: the first being the actual act of whistleblowing with its proportion of alleged damage to US interests, the second being the fundamental exposure of massive misconduct on the part of the US-British security establishment.

Closer examination of Snowden's conduct does not match the image of cultivated cynicism endorsed by his detractors. The 1.5 million documents he is meant to have filched, for instance, has been dismissed by Snowden's lawyer, Ben Wizner, as ludicrous in number.

Nor did he reveal these documents, without detailed scrutiny, through open channels on the internet in what might euphemistically be termed a 'dump'. In feats of classic journalism, the material was examined by national security reporters before making their way into broader discussions. 'In reality,' suggests Trevor Timm, 'the number of documents that Snowden published himself is zero.'

The actual damage caused by the revelations has also been a point of pure supposition. Last week's flawed House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence committee report did everything to obscure the argument with assumptions that the case against Snowden had been made. 'Damage' to a state is often fictional rather than measurable, while the whistleblower, as happened in this case, is denounced as 'a serial exaggerator and fabricator'.

The avenue for any whistleblower is always judged by the channels he was supposedly meant to exhaust. He is held to a standard far higher than the person or institution he is exposing; he must consider the entire gamut of possibilities, with each exhaustion entirely a matter for authorities guarding the status quo.

What, for instance, constitutes a 'reasonable' internal investigation? Which authority has the sufficient independence to conduct such an investigation and reform a culture gone bad? The stab in the dark is exactly what is expected of the person disclosing the wrongdoing, because there is, by definition, no actual objective sense about what is really deemed wrong within the toxic fraternity. The urge to reform is often instigated by a shock inflicted from the outside.

What Snowden revealed was a technology security complex inefficient yet invasive; global and indifferent to national borders and oversight. It also revealed the institutional bankruptcy between the public citizen and the global watchers; and stressed the enormous importance of taking self-help measures in guarding against hacking intrusions.

There have never been better times for companies specialising in self-encryption, or discussion about a global bill of digital privacy. Even if Snowden receives no pardon from President Obama, he can at least be sure to have been pardoned, to a large extent, by history.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Edward Snowden, whistleblowing, The Guardian



submit a comment

Existing comments

One man's whistle-blower is another man's traitor.

Ross Howard | 22 September 2016  

Integrity always costs ... And no matter how much we scapegoat whistleblowers, truth will continue to seek ways into the light ... Speaking truth to power always costs.

Mary tehan | 23 September 2016  

Perhaps the crux of this and many other problems is the exaggerated value put on what is "in the national interest". We are moving slowly and reluctantly to the realisation that national interests should be subordinated to World interests. Indeed that each nation will be better off if all agree to adopt the "All for one, and one for all" approach. Covering up one nation's faults is a way of perpetuating them, to the harm of all. Exposing them begins the progress of correcting them, for the long-term betterment of all concerned.

Robert Liddy | 23 September 2016  

This is such an important issue; Traitor or Patriot ? I agree that given the legal proceedings, findings and rulings, how is it that we still call him a traitor ? Obama has been so weak in so many ways. None more so than his stance on this.

luke | 23 September 2016  

Or, "One man's swhistle-blower" is a traitor's scapegoat.

Marcus Tee | 23 September 2016  

An Obama pardon before he steps down would be welcome, if only for the sake of Snowden's family good name. It would not guarantee physical safely for Snowden from assassination attempts if he were to return to live in any Western country. For some people in US', Snpwden betrayed his loyalty oath to the U.S. national,security system. Just as Russia regards people who have sworn loyalty to the FSB (KGB successor body) then gone to the other side as traitors who 'deserve a short life',m there are people in the US who look at Snowden in that same way. Sad, but reality.

Tony kevin | 23 September 2016  

Binoculars Kampmark is totally correct. Edward Snowden should be recognised as a champion of democracy and human rights for the great courage he has shown in revealing to the world the incredible crimes against humanity committed by the US Military Industrial Complex. Barack Obama, on the other hand, will be remembered as the president who continued the wars started by George Bush and was personally involved in killer drones attacks in Yemen and Pakistan that have killed thousands of innocent people. He will also be remembered as the president who carried out the unnecessary war against Libya which has left this nation in chaos and supported the foreign jihardist groups invading Syria - including ISIS for a time - and having approved the recent US air attack on Syrian troops who were trying to defend their nation. It would be wonderful if Edward Snowden was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He has done far more to promote world peace than Barack Obama, who if he was really honest, should return his.

Andy alcock | 23 September 2016  

The moral justification for whistleblowing is to expose harm. Where's the harm in collecting telephone 'metadata' which excludes the content of the call? As for PRISM, a harm might be where the state is a party to a negotiation or a legal proceedings and in a position to peep into the privileged communications of the opposing party. However, lawyers can test the bases of evidence of the opposing side. Because acquiring quality information for national safety is difficult, the onus should be on whistleblowers to show how the disclosure was in the national interest. Is the reason why intelligence services keep quiet about their capabilities to prevent others from knowing how little it is that they know and how hard it is to get that information? As treason can be deliberate or negligent, a whistleblower who carelessly fails to consider the difficulties faced by intelligence agencies in doing their legitimate work can become an accidental traitor.

Roy Chen Yee | 24 September 2016  

A great article. As Dr Kampark suggests, but does not explicitly state, the WaPo showed breathtaking chutzpah. The Pulitzer the paper got was, in fact, for its reporting of the VERY SAME documents which it now claims Snowden was unpatriotic to release. On the basis that people don't voluntarily assume such high levels of cognitive dissonance, I wonder if there has been a quiet change of management there.

Justin Glyn SJ | 30 September 2016