Edward Snowden, the media, and the Espionage Act

As a retired 34-year intelligence professional who made a career recruiting foreign spies and stealing secrets, my aversion to a pardon for Edward Snowden goes beyond the damage he wrought and is unrelated to hurt pride. It’s rooted in the Espionage Act and the dynamic between the government and media over the boundaries concerning the public’s “right to know.” That is, do all parties share responsibility that transcend legal interpretations to safeguard the nation’s security?

I’m hardly a legal scholar, but my work required judgment concerning risk versus gain against a gray and dynamic landscape in which the consequences routinely were life and death. I was charged with determining whether or not the value in any lawfully executed intelligence activity was worth the risk to our sources and the continuity of ongoing collection. Until retirement, my insight into the media was limited to failed efforts at monitoring my teenagers’ social media activity while personally staying well clear of journalists. Still, I expected that reputable journalists calculated the public’s right to know and First Amendment freedoms against the cost of exposure to the very people they intended to protect and inform.

Having read any number of compelling narratives, those arguing for unrestricted freedom to publish anything and everything that might come their way — such as the voluminous, unedited, original documents that Snowden stole — are undermined by their black-and-white take on the rather opaque world in which I long dwelled. Personally, while I do not condone the exposure of classified information, even under circumstances intended to highlight a wrong and hold our leaders accountable, I acknowledge it’s likewise not a black-and-white matter and demands a two-way street with the media.

We live in an open society that requires confidence in a system of checks and balances through congressional oversight and the transparency legislated by the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act as a means to correct the systemic problems that contributed to 9/11’s intelligence failure. Moreover, we trust that national security agencies support robust internal dissent and whistleblower channels with empowered inspectors general. 

Over the past four years, though, it’s hard to argue that elected representatives had the necessary insight and authority to hold the White House and the intelligence community accountable. Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell and his successor, John Ratcliffe, hardly have facilitated transparency and confidence that the intelligence community was free from politicalization. And President Trump’s purge undermined the reliability of inspectors general and the faith of those prepared to come forward officially to report transgressions.

Only, Snowden was no whistleblower. In fact, according to the timeline offered in the 33-page House Permanent Select Committee (HPSCI)’s September 2016 damage assessment, there’s no evidence Snowden made any effort to use the protected channels enabling either whistleblowing or dissent. Rather, after being reprimanded for inappropriate workplace behavior that reflected his professional history, Snowden began a premeditated effort to download as many damaging files as he could access as part of a plan to travel to Hong Kong, from where he aspired to reap financial gain and exact revenge for his hurt pride.

Moreover, the HPSCI report affirmed that “the vast majority of the documents he [Snowden] stole have nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests — they instead pertain to military, defense and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries.” The report further notes that this “resulted in the loss of intelligence streams that saved American lives,” and he “handed over secrets that protect American troops overseas and secrets that provide vital defenses against terrorists and nation-states.” 

The report’s most extensive redactions concern the details of “foreign influence” and “damage,” which suggest there’s far more reason to question Snowden’s noble narrative concerning his motives, the reality of what capabilities he actually sought to expose, and for whose benefit. Indeed, the report makes a convincing case that Snowden, like any number of foreign agents I personally recruited, acted purely out of a thirst for revenge, money and the desire to weaken his country’s security.

Was Snowden’s approach to journalists newsworthy? Regardless of his means and motivation, did he reveal an issue concerning civil liberties in the monitoring of Americans worth publishing at the risk of national security? I suggest it’s a matter of boundaries. Journalists who facilitated the wholesale exposure of that which Snowden stole went well beyond what might have been necessary in highlighting the privacy issues and making their point. The level of detail these documents provided hostile state actors and terrorist organizations ended vital collection streams, compromised sensitive operations, and killed agents, leaving Americans vulnerable. Was there some alternative, happy medium? 

The current reality, unfortunately, allows for ample blame on all sides. In our toxic political environment, intelligence agencies are muzzled from responsibly engaging the media, and journalists eschew civil responsibilities so as to scoop their competitors and gain notoriety. Occasionally, such sensational stories are reported without the media adequately vetting their sources, as recently acknowledged by the New York Times, whose source for its “Caliphate” podcast fabricated the details.

Journalists should be expected to behave responsibly enough to provide national security agencies fair and timely opportunities to explain the bigger picture and consequences concerning that which they as reporters can’t be expected to know, nor the second and third order consequences to their revelations. In turn, the government can acknowledge the practical value of damage control by finding areas in which to compromise concerning that which is ultimately published.

The world I speak of is hardly utopian. In the not too distant past, I prepared talking points concerning sensitive operational activity used by national security leaders to engage journalists — reporters who, in several cases, appreciating the full consequences of their impending stories, agreed not to publish, to delay, or withhold certain details in their final copy, premature exposure of which would otherwise inflict irreparable damage or loss of life.

Like the world of intelligence itself, where one’s understanding is formulated from the incomplete mosaic of available information, there’s no “one size fits all” solution. The public is best served by the government’s and media’s resumed embrace of a calculus in which both assesses the risk versus gain, case by case. All concerned would do well to put first those whom they serve in order to coexist in the reality of a rather unforgiving world. 

As a retired spy, I can attest to the fact that we all interpret “truth” through the rather frosted and often fragile glass windows from which we see the world. The bottom line should be protecting the American people.

Douglas London retired from the CIA’s Clandestine Service in 2019 after a 34-year career, during which he served as a chief of station and held executive positions concerning counterterrorism, the Near East, South Asia and Iran, and a role related to cybersecurity. He is an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service’s Center for Security Studies and a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute. Follow him @douglaslondon5

Tags Donald Trump Edward Snowden Espionage John Ratcliffe media National security Richard Grenell Whistleblower

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