Below is my column today in USA Today on the criminal complaint against Edward Snowden. I have been criticizing the charge under the Espionage Act as abusive and a mistake by the Administration. President Barack Obama has been criticized for years for his use of the controversial 1917 Act. He is responsible for six of the nine total indictments ever brought under the Act. More than all presidents before him and putting Richard Nixon to shame. He has used the act against sources for journalists and only recently was criticized for the attacks on the free press under his Administration. I do not question the basis for prosecution of Snowden for the disclosure of classified information or any theft of such documents. However, the effort to put him away for life does raise an interesting contrast with prior cases, which is the subject of today’s column (slightly expanded from the print version).
As Edward Snowden travels the globe looking for refuge from U.S. law enforcement, the self-proclaimed leaker has finally done what wars and economic crisis failed to do. He has united both Democratic and Republican leaders in an increasing shrill chorus calling for his head. Many of these politicians insist that Snowden must be put away for life or even face the death penalty.
Yet, what unites both parties in anger does not appear to be the alleged breach of security but the greatest crime of all: embarrassing the establishment. Snowden embarrassed Congress and the White House by discussing not only massive secret surveillance of our citizens but also false statements given to the public by our leaders. For that, he might have to pay with his life.
For many, the recent disclosure of massive warrantless surveillance programs of all citizens by the Obama administration has brought back memories of George Orwell’s 1984. Such comparisons are understandable not only with the anniversary of the book occurring the very week of the disclosures but the Administration’s “doublethink” interpretations of common terms like “transparency” and “privacy.” According to President Obama, the secret surveillance program is not only entirely “transparent” but something of a triumph of privacy.
Yet, another Orwell book seems more apt as the White House and its allies try to contain the scandal: Animal Farm.
Orwell wrote the fanciful account of a farm society of animals at the end of World War II during a period of authoritarian power and government propaganda. The farm government proclaimed equality of all animals but, as the pig Squealer explained, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” As our leaders joined together on television to bloviate about the need to capture and try the “traitor” Snowden, they were affirming a system of laws that seems to apply to the governed exclusively.
Consider the charges against Snowden: Official Washington insists that “justice must be done” in the face of a clear criminal act. Yet, when one of their own commits a crime related to classified information, it is difficult to get Attorney General Eric Holder, many members of Congress or the president to even acknowledge it.
For example, there is a clear crime that has been documented and virtually confessed to in this scandal: perjury. Not by Snowden, mind you.
When National Intelligence Director James Clapper appeared before the Senate, he was asked directly, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper responded, “No, sir. … Not wittingly.”
We now know that was a lie. Moreover, many of the senators who heard that testimony knew it was a lie because they admitted later to knowing about the NSA program to gather data on every citizen. Later, Clapper said that his testimony was “the least untruthful” statement he could make. Yet, of course, that would still make it an untrue statement — which most people call a lie and lawyers call perjury. Indeed, when Roger Clemens was prosecuted for untrue statements before Congress, he was not told of the option to tell the least untrue statement on steroid use.
Where are all of our law and order advocates in the face of the admission that Clapper lied to the Senate and the public? The Justice Department routinely prosecutes people for relatively small misrepresentations in testimony. This was a whopper. A premeditated, knowing lie. Yet, Holder has not even ordered an investigation into the possible perjury. Ironically, the attorney general himself recently gave testimony that was widely viewed as false on the surveillance of journalists and the treatment of journalist investigation as a criminal conspiracy.
Slap on the wrist
Even when the governing elite is caught violating the same law as Snowden, it is considered a minor transgression. Snowden is alleged to have stolen government classified documents and removed them from secure locations. Prosecutors will likely seek a lengthy sentence for that act alone.
But in 2005, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, a former White House national security adviser to Bill Clinton, faced that same charge after he intentionally removed and destroyed copies of a classified document. Not only that but Berger then lied to investigators — a separate crime regularly prosecuted by the Justice Department. Yet, no one called for his long incarceration. Instead, he was allowed to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor with no jail time. That’s right, not a day. Just a fine and a three-year suspension of his security clearance. In other words, the deal allowed Berger to walk and even allowed him to reacquire a clearance after just three years.
Of course, none of our politicians is nearly as open and honest as Squealer. There will be no sign proclaiming the different treatment of the governing and governed classes. They prefer the barnyard to return to its previously sleepy existence once the offender has been put away.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
June 24, 2013