We previously discussed how terribly confused Hillary Clinton appeared in discussing National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. She just could not understand why he would not have trusted the government to deal with any problems or why he would not come back to the United States. Now, Secretary of State John Kerry is offering his own brand of macho advice to the kid: “man up and come back to the United States.” Sure leaders have called for him to be tried as a traitor and either incarcerated for life or executed. Sure, he is not guaranteed to see all of the evidence used against him or even be guaranteed a federal trial as opposed to a military tribunal. However, Kerry appears ready to give him an “attaboy” on his way to solitary confinement under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) that cut off virtually any contact with the outside world.
As we discussed with Clinton, the ruling class in Washington finds Snowden perfectly incomprehensible. Every aspect of our political system has long been tied down and controlled by the two parties. For such leaders, someone like Snowden is nothing short of an alien visitation — someone who throws away his career and possible freedom for what he claims to be principle. To make matters worse, Snowden is viewed as a whistleblower, if not a hero, by many in the United States and around the world. (However, polls in the U.S. are conflicting. A majority are glad that the disclosures were made but other polls show that a majority believes Snowden should stand trial. Making things even more precarious for people like Clinton is that younger people have particularly rallied to the side of Snowden as a whistleblower). While President Obama implausibly claimed that he would have reviewed these abusive programs without Snowden’s disclosures, Snowden was clearly the cause of multiple investigations and reforms of these programs.
Snowden committed the ultimate crime in Washington: he embarrassed leadership in both parties. He broke the rules and went outside of a carefully controlled duopoly system of control. He embarrassed many, including Clinton, who sat by quietly as the national security system invaded the privacy of every American citizen. Indeed, for people in the establishment who have spent their lives reinforcing that system, someone like Snowden is more than an anomaly. He is someone who not only broke the rules but threw away his career to make these disclosures. For people like Clinton and Kerry, he could just as well be a man from Mars.
Kerry said that Snowden really needs to “stand up in the United States and make his case to the American people.” Indeed, Kerry declared that “A patriot would not run away. … He can come home but he’s a fugitive from justice.” Like Clinton, Kerry cannot imagine why Snowden would not trust the system: “If he cares so much about America and he believes in America, he should trust the American system of justice.”
As someone who has held top clearances since the Reagan administration, I do not support the release of classified information. However, as someone who has litigated national security cases from terrorism to espionage cases, there is every reason for Snowden to be leery of our system as it currently stands in the post 9-11 world. I have great faith and love for our legal system, but national security law has become increasingly draconian and outcome determinative due to various changes in the last decade. This Administration has continued the use of secret legal opinions and secret evidence in cases. The agencies continue to classify information to prevent the public or defendants from reviewing potentially embarrassing or conflicting material. President Obama has refused to close tribunal proceedings and maintains the same claim of his inherent authority to decide whether people go to real courts or the widely ridiculed tribunal proceedings. Even if in the federal system, the government would hit Snowden with SAMs to cut off any contact and impose limitations on even his cleared counsel in speaking with him. At trial, federal judges are increasingly barring arguments from defendants as “immaterial” even when those arguments are the real reason for their actions.
Thus, the Justice Department would likely move to exclude arguments that disclosure was necessary because Snowden had no real alternative for reform. He might be even prevented from arguing that he was seeking to protect citizens from the systemic and comprehensive denial of privacy. Even if some of that motivational argument were allowed, it would likely trigger an instruction that that is no defense to the charges. Sentencing enhancements routinely used by the Justice Department would guarantee a life sentence if convicted for Snowden.
As for utilizing the system to make these disclosures before he fled, Snowden had little reason to trust the congressional oversight committees or the agencies themselves. Just for the record, as many of you know, I represented the prior whistleblower who first revealed this program years before Snowden. He tried to use the system. Happily he was not charged and is doing well. However, as I have testified in Congress, the whistleblower system referred to by Clinton is a colossal joke. First, there are exceptions under the whistleblower laws for national security information. Second, the House and Senate oversight committees are viewed as the place that whistleblowers go to get arrested. There is a revolving door of staff back and forth to the intelligence agencies and people like Dianne Feinstein have denounced Snowden as a traitor. While one can still criticize Snowden for breaking classification laws, the suggestion that he could have used the whistleblower system is hardly self-evident if you are familiar with the laws or the history of such cases.
Whatever Snowden decides, it is clear that if he returns he will be quickly put in isolation and would be virtually certain of conviction with a life sentence. That is assuming that some leaders do not get their way in calling for a death penalty case. That is certain a lot to “man up” to.