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President Obama’s brave and principled decision to commute Chelsea Manning’s remaining 35-year prison sentence highlights the equally strong need to pardon whistleblower Edward Snowden. Offering a pardon for Snowden on the eve of Trump’s inauguration would not only be equally brave and principled, it would restore the value of truth and ethics at a time when these essential elements of democracy are more necessary, and more precarious, than ever before.
Last year’s House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Report described Edward Snowden as a “traitor” who is a “serial exaggerator and fabricator” with a “pattern of intentional lying.” Incoming President Trump on the subject of Snowden said “there is still a thing called execution,” a sentiment echoed Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, presumptively the next director of the CIA chief.
But groups including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and United Nations Special Rapporteur David Kaye have called for Snowden’s pardon. Obama should do so to send a clear message that the values of truth and integrity are indispensable to protecting the future of this country.
Whistleblowers—employees who discover and disclose evidence of serious misconduct—have been essential to holding government and corporate institutions accountable. Daniel Ellsberg’s disclosures helped end the Vietnam War. Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins’s fraud disclosures drove sweeping financial reform. And Snowden’s 2013 disclosures about the NSA’s dragnet collection of U.S. citizens’ electronic communications drove legislative reforms and heightened privacy protections for consumers to protect against warrantless surveillance.
The willingness of employees to speak up about illegality and serious threats to public health, safety and the environment has saved lives, changed laws, and averted disasters. Bipartisan passage of numerous federal whistleblower protection laws demonstrates recognition of the powerful enforcement value of employees who witness misconduct firsthand. Those laws have been necessary because, while we know ethical employees are critical to promoting compliance, we also know that whistleblowers, rather than being greeted with gratitude, are instead predictably met with reprisal by those whose wrongdoing they expose.
Whistleblowers suffer attacks on their character, motives and qualifications; demotions, poor performance appraisals and firings; and threats of investigation or prosecution, along with denials of the alleged misconduct. These classic tactics are used to deflect attention from the message to the messenger, and to chill other employees who might be similarly inclined to speak up.
The majority of whistleblowers are culturally vilified rather than valued. All of the synonyms for “whistleblower” in Merriam-Webster are negative—fink, rat, snitch, tattletale. No one aspires to be a whistleblower, and most employees, either out of fear of reprisal or belief that reporting problems will be futile—both legitimate concerns—stay silent.
Something that unifies our country in this divisive time is our collective awareness of corruption at the highest levels of our government and corporate institutions. In the new “post-truth” world, the devaluation of truth, combined with employees’ reluctance to report evidence of wrongdoing, is perilous.
Granting a pardon to Snowden would catalyze the needed paradigm shift that whistleblowers must be valued rather than vilified; that whistleblowers play an essential role in promoting accountability and trust in our institutions; and that truth can, and must, matter in a functional democracy.
To be sure, pardoning Snowden would invite a battery of criticisms, including that it would encourage future disclosures of classified information that would potentially compromise national security interests. But given that there has been no concrete evidence that Snowden’s disclosures threatened such interests, yet ample evidence that his careful, and validated, disclosures to respected journalists resulted in the end of mass warrantless surveillance of Americans, granting a pardon would calibrate Obama’s legacy on whistleblowing.
Obama’s prosecution of Snowden had the effect of eroding trust in government by allowing us to see a largely responsible administration attack those who revealed its flaws. Mistrust was further fertilized by the double standard applied to those close to the Obama administration who also violated classification laws without providing any benefit to the public interest. (Examples include Hillary Clinton and Gen. David Petraeus.) The perception of corruption almost certainly contributed to Trump’s election.
The importance, and fragility, of truth and truth-tellers has never been starker, nor has the potential cost of silence. Whistleblowers deserve our gratitude and need our support. Pardoning Snowden would be a bulwark against the rapid erosion of the currency of truth in our democracy, and perhaps be the most important legacy Obama could leave us in his final days in office.
Dana Gold is an attorney and senior fellow at the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting whistleblowers.