Intelligence experts want Edward Snowden back home.
The campaign to persuade Barack Obama to allow the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to return home to the US without facing prolonged prison time has received powerful new backing from some of the most experienced intelligence experts in the country.
Fifteen former staff members of the Church committee, the 1970s congressional investigation into illegal activity by the CIA and other intelligence agencies, have written jointly to Obama calling on him to end Snowden’s “untenable exile in Russia, which benefits nobody”. Over eight pages of tightly worded argument, they remind the president of the positive debate that Snowden’s disclosures sparked – prompting one of the few examples of truly bipartisan legislative change in recent years.
They also remind Obama of the long record of leniency that has been shown by his own and previous administrations towards those who have broken secrecy laws. They even recall how their own Church committee revealed that six US presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, were guilty of abusing secret powers.
“There is no question that Snowden broke the law. But previous cases in which others violated the same law suggest leniency. And most importantly, Snowden’s actions were not for personal benefit, but were intended to spur reform. And they did so,” the signatories write.
The Church committee, or the US Senate select committee to study government operations with respect to intelligence activities, to give it its full name, sat in 1975-76 at a time of deep public anxiety about the rogue work of federal agencies. The aftershocks of Watergate were still being felt, and Seymour Hersh had exposed in the New York Times mass illegal activities by the CIA, including routine surveillance of anti-war groups.
As the 15 staff members point out, the committee investigation led to the disclosure of jaw-dropping illegal acts including the planting of an FBI informant inside the civil rights group the NAACP, attempts to push Martin Luther King into killing himself, and Cointelpro, the vast program run secretly by the FBI to disrupt progressive organisations in the US.
The lead signatories of the Obama letter are Frederick Schwarz, who was chief counsel to the Church committee and is now at the Brennan Center for Justice, and William Green Miller, the committee’s staff director who went on to become US ambassador to Ukraine in the 1990s. Together with their fellow former staffers, they add heft to a campaign to pardon Snowden that has already attracted the support of prominent public figures including the co-founder of Apple Steve Wozniak, philanthropist George Soros and Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the world wide web.
In their letter, which they have also sent to the US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, the 15 cite the former CIA director David Petraeus as an example of the kind of official leniency that has so far eluded Snowden. Petraeus violated both the law and national security by leaking confidential information to his biographer and lover, then lied about it to the FBI.
“Yet he was allowed to plead guilty to just one misdemeanor for which he received no jail time,” the letter says. The reference to Petraeus is pointed at a time when the former military commander is being actively considered by President-elect Donald Trump to become US secretary of state.
Trump gains no mention in the former staffers’ plea to Obama, but he is the elephant in the room. The letter writers state euphemistically: “As the US relationship with Russia deteriorates, the risk to all interests involved increases.”
They stop short of adding that Trump’s close ties to Russia, and his notorious flattery towards Vladimir Putin, could imperil Snowden’s current asylum in that country.