Edward Snowden is a Patriot

Edward Snowden is a patriot.

As a whistleblower of illegal government activity that was sanctioned and kept secret by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government for years, he undertook great personal risk for the public good. And he has single-handedly reignited a global debate about the extent and nature of government surveillance and our most fundamental rights as individuals.

Monday's court ruling declaring the NSA surveillance program unconstitutional highlights the irony of the government’s prosecution of Snowden. For more than 12 years, the ACLU has raised concerns about the massive changes occurring in our democracy: the rubber stamping of expansive surveillance powers by the judiciary, the clandestine nature of programs that invade the rights and lives of millions of Americans with virtually no oversight, and the quiet acquiescence of a public that believed that individuals had nothing to fear if they had done nothing wrong.

That was true until Snowden awakened the American people – and others across the globe – from complacent lethargy. For his actions, Snowden should be applauded, not vilified.  He should be granted full immunity from prosecution. And he should be allowed to resume his life in the United States as a proud American citizen.

Let’s unpack the arguments that are surely rifling through many Americans’ minds as to why Edward Snowden should not be granted immunity and allowed to return home.

First, many thoughtful observers note that Snowden has revealed important facts about an otherwise clandestine program, but wonder why he took it upon himself to bring his evidence to journalists rather than to Congress or the executive branch. The simple answer is that Snowden was too smart to expect real results from the "official" channels. Since September 11, 2001, Congress and the courts have failed miserably at providing constitutional oversight. When the New York Times finally found the courage to expose the earlier NSA spying program in 2005, Congress responded by legitimizing and extending this illegal program through the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. The courts proved little more vigorous in their willingness to serve as a meaningful check on such surveillance programs. Two different lawsuits brought by the ACLU – one in Detroit and one in New York that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court – were dismissed because it was impossible to prove that our clients were in fact targeted by these secret government surveillance programs. Absent such proof, which the government was never going to provide, no American would be in a position to challenge the government surveillance programs. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Solicitor General Don Verilli in our Clapper litigation: "General, is there anybody who has standing?" In disclosing these documents Snowden took the patriotic route, knowing that nothing short of public release would get the attention of the American people, our government and our allies. He didn’t turn to the normal, government channels to raise his concerns of illegal government activity because he knew that others had used those channels and failed. Fortunately, both the courts and Congress seem to have renewed vigor in looking into the constitutionality of NSA surveillance – but such vigor is a direct result of Snowden’s revelations.

The second argument against immunity goes something like this: "He was employed by the government. He knew he was breaking the law. He should have stayed home and faced the music if he was truly well-intentioned." If Snowden had stayed in Hawaii after his first revelations became public, the government would have arrested him that very day. The laws that are being used against Snowden do not distinguish between patriotic whistleblowers and foreign agents. It would be a true miscarriage of justice if the government succeeded in imprisoning for life a person who revealed unconstitutional government conduct. Snowden would surely have been subjected to "special administrative measures" and would have been prevented from working with the journalists or engaging the broader public debate. Snowden knew that he couldn’t stay in the U.S. and ignite the public debate that he felt was missing – so he forsook his homeland to further American democracy.

A third argument – often read in The Wall Street Journal editorial pages – questions the authenticity of his motivations by the countries in which he received refuge. If Snowden were such a true believer in democracy, he would never have traveled to China or Russia. That argument fails to recognize the massive power of the American government to lean on other governments to repossess one of its most wanted. Recall the full court press that the American government made through the efforts of President Obama and Secretary Kerry to ensure that Snowden had no other door except one to an American federal prison. Even those countries that have voiced outrage at the NSA surveillance of their leaders and citizens – Germany, Brazil, Mexico – have failed to offer political asylum to the man who uncovered it. Their hypocrisy and capitulation to American diplomatic strong-arming left Snowden with little recourse but to receive help from governments that may have their own agendas in housing someone wanted by the United States.

Edward Snowden is a great American and a true patriot. My colleagues and I at the ACLU are proud to be his legal advisors. We are committed to assisting him on legal issues he may confront.

Thank goodness for patriots like him, who are willing to endure personal sacrifice to defend truths that we hold self-evident, but which too many Americans take for granted.

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Richard Harnack

While I do not disagree with the information released concerning the depth of government spying, the attempt to make Snowden into a hero goes against the facts of his actions.
1. He fled with the information first to the PRC making the patently inane claim that they respected freedom of the press.
2. He goes to Russia, the Russia of Vladimir Putin, with the equally inane idea that his "rights" will be protected.
3. He has stated that his information is encrypted so that only he has access, and it cannot be broken. Of course he has claimed to reveal that such code-breaking is exactly what the NSA has been involved in.

Now I am being asked to believe he is a "hero". The man is an a-historical geek whose ignorance is only eclipsed by the patent stupidity of the president of the ACLU.

I respect the ACLU, but maybe it is time you look for a new president, one with sense.


Well, I think you are forgetting to mention one very important thing: if he had stayed in the US, Snowden would have been tortured as badly -- or, if such can be imagined, tortured even worse -- than Chelsea Manning.


Thank you for the truth. :)


The NSA's spying doesn't matter, because we have Obamacare. All praise and honor belong to our benelovent government! They love and care for us.

Kwende Idrissa Madu

Edward Snowden is working for Russian government and is being used in a direct attack on the intelligence gathering capabilities of the United States. Patriots do not seek aid and comfort from the enemies of the republic. If the government is conducting illegal surveillance you take them to court and obtain judgment from a jury of your peers. Mr Snowden is an enemy of the United States and will be treated as such.


Don't forget the "we already knew this stuff" argument, and the "every country does this sort of snooping, don't be so naive" argument, and the "everybody shares everything on FB anyway, so what's the big deal" argument (--a.k.a. the "I wasn't using my 4th Am. anyway" argument )

William Hamilton

Just like Rosa Parks, that day came when Edward Snowden stopped and said "enough is enough" and could no longer allow the injustice to continue.

Mary Mathieu

Thank you for this and all you do.


No, Edward Snowden didn't just say "enough is enough", he deliberately stole a NSA employment test and the answers and cheated to get hired with the NSA in order to steal information that can hurt our security and is exposing it to other countries. It wasn't like he suddenly had an urge and acted out it, it was a detailed plan of espionage. As someone said before, if the government is doing illegal surveillence then take them to court and expose it in a protected environment. Personally, I don't give a damn if they go through phone numbers to see who's calling who and for that matter I don't care if the government knows where I am. I have nothing to hide! Now if a terrorist attack occurs because we were unable to secure pertinant information through thorough surveillence, who are we going to blame then? You know damn well who, the NSA and Obama, of course...


He WAS a Patriot perhaps, for a short while.

Then he started giving out data that can be, and has been, very damaging to OUR country. Do you not understand patriotism? It's not about what's right for the rest of the world, it's about what's right for our country.

Exposing the NSA for all the things it's been doing has done a lot of good, and we're getting (hopefully) our priorities straightened out. At the same time he hurt us diplomatically, and severely in many cases. He's done enough to have it considered treason. Being tortured would be less of a concern for him than being executed.

A patriotic act, followed by a treasonous one, makes him a traitor in my book. At least he did some good in the process.


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