Edward Snowden wants the U.S. government to stop treating him like a defector. Then why did he defect?
Snowden, of course, is the former government contractor who released an enormous trove of classified information to news organizations detailing the data- and intelligence-gathering activities of U.S. security agencies. The disclosures were disturbing, and revealed the extent of spying on both U.S. citizens and allies.
Some of it should not be a surprise, considering the expansion of authority a spooked Congress gave to the intelligence community after 9/11. The upside of the disclosures is that it has caused a national discussion on what authority our government should have in monitoring its own citizens.
But Snowden still broke the law, and very deliberately so. He also did not carefully expose just one troubling element of the data-mining activities he knew of, nor did he first try to go to a member of Congress with his concerns. He dumped the classified information wholesale, and then got on a plane for Hong Kong – as sure a sign as any that he knew he had violated the law and would face serious consequences for it.
Snowden is now residing in exile in Russia, and apparently is already getting antsy. Through a German lawyer, Snowden released a letter appealing to the U.S. government to stop treating him like a traitor for what he called his "moral duty to act." Said the letter:
My government continues to treat dissent as defection, and seeks to criminalize political speech with felony charges that provide no defense. Speaking the truth is not a crime. I am confident that with the support of the international community, the government of the United States will abandon this harmful behavior.
The problem for Snowden is that speaking the truth indeed can be a crime, especially when you sign a document pledging to keep national security secrets and then very deliberately violate that pledge. And Snowden obviously knew what he had done was wrong or at least, if he didn't think it was morally wrong, illegal. Otherwise, he wouldn't have high-tailed it to Hong Kong and then to Moscow to escape punishment.
People have gone to prison, sometimes for many years, in defiance of a law or policy they thought was unjust. Snowden has already managed to avoid that fate. It's asking too much to expect the government whose secrets he illegally revealed to welcome him back as a hero.
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