You probably have serious questions about personal privacy abuse by NSA. And you are no doubt cloudy on how Edward Snowden plays into it all. Here my friend and Cato Institute Chairman Bob Levy clarifies the trade-offs and suggests a path forward.
The main argument against treating Snowden as a hero is that he may have disclosed crucial information to such bastions of liberty as Russia, China, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, or Cuba — countries where (according to Wikileaks) he applied for asylum. Snowden supporters offer two counterarguments:
First, they maintain that Snowden had no real choice regarding asylum in Russia, where he was trapped after the U.S. State Department revoked his passport. He would have preferred Iceland, which rejected his bid for citizenship. Snowden’s remaining options were unacceptable: keep quiet about the NSA’s snooping, stay here and be exposed to 30 years or more in prison, or go to an allied country and face extradition.
Second, in a September NPR interview, reporter Barton Gellman (a Snowden confidant) stated that Snowden “is exceptionally skilled at digital self-defense.” He taught courses on avoiding surveillance at the NSA and CIA. Gellman believes Snowden “rendered himself incapable of opening the [NSA database] while he was in Russia.” He no longer had the key to the encrypted data; and, more importantly, there was “nothing for the key to open any more.” Snowden buttressed that assertion in a letter to former U.S. Senator Gordon Humphrey (R-NH): “You may rest easy knowing that I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”
Therein lies the crux of the matter for some libertarians. Snowden deserves our enduring gratitude for uncovering government abuse at great personal risk. On the other hand, Mike Rogers (R-MI), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, alleges that Snowden probably had help from Russia and may have compromised vital national security interests, a charge that Snowden denies. Perhaps that suggests this outline for a deal: first, Snowden can come home if he will cooperate with investigators. Second, he will not be prosecuted for actions already disclosed to the public. But third, he can be held accountable for other actions, not yet disclosed, that amount to espionage — traditionally defined as transmitting national defense information with intent or reason to believe that it will be used to the injury of the United States or the advantage of a foreign nation. And fourth, as constitutionally required, the government would have the burden of presenting evidence to a grand jury, obtaining an indictment, and prevailing in a criminal trial.