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Edward Snowden Should Not Return Without Consequences

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and a small army of politicians, musicians and actors want President Barack Obama to pardon NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Failing that, they want a plea agreement or some other guarantee that would protect the former NSA contractor from facing prosecution so he can have a homecoming and a hero's welcome.

Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, who doesn't have a college degree, much less any expertise or firsthand knowledge of intelligence and security agencies, actually uses that word -- hero -- to describe Snowden.

In an incoherent piece in The Guardian -- an apparently flow-of-consciousness effort that laments "people bleaching their hair every week," name-drops The Bilderberg Group, labels the military as "sickening" imperialists and praises the Black Panthers -- Moore praises "activist beauties" like Snowden.

"All I can say to them is thank you, and try to honour them in my music," Moore wrote. "They are heroes."

Others, like former CIA operative Barry Eisler, are more measured. Eisler points out that, without Snowden's leaks, Americans would remain ignorant their own government spied on them.

"For the first time, the country has the minimal information necessary to grapple with the benefits and dangers of a surveillance apparatus far more vast and intrusive even than the one Senator Frank Church warned 40 years ago could lead to the eradication of privacy and the imposition of tyranny," Eisler wrote.

That's true. Snowden's efforts exposed indefensible practices -- secret, warrantless mass surveillance not of America's enemies, but of its citizens. Those practices went beyond counterterrorism efforts, and the revelations have led to important reforms and conversations about government transparency.

But like most stories, Snowden's saga isn't all black and white. There's more than enough evidence that he's not the altruistic freedom fighter he claims he is, and there are troubling questions about his motivations and his relationships with adversarial powers.

For a man who champions transparency, Snowden has been remarkably reluctant to offer details about how he stole government documents, how many documents he stole, how he ended up seeking asylum in Russia, and his own nebulous background, which seems to grow in legend with each passing year and each interview he grants.

Snowden hasn't come clean about the extent of the information he lifted from government servers. There's ample evidence that some of it has little or no value to the ongoing discussions about privacy, yet exposes state secrets and endangers American intelligence assets.

“Officials in position to know said good people have already lost their lives thanks to Snowden. Countless more are likely to lose theirs now that our enemies know our most closely guarded sources and methods of communications intelligence collection," wrote Robert F. Turner, a national security expert, law professor at University of Virginia, and former advisor to the White House. “When all of the smoke clears, it may very well be proven that Snowden is the most injurious traitor in American history.”

Snowden also hasn't been forthcoming about the contents of the files he stole and whether he retains copies of that information. The former NSA contractor famously met with several American journalists in Hong Kong in June 2013, passing some 200,000 files to The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and documentary maker Laura Poitras, according to one of the original Guardian stories published in 2013.

But the dates don't add up, and a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed Snowden was in Hong Kong for 11 days before he met with Greenwald and Poitras. What was he doing during that time? Snowden refuses to say, but The Wall Street Journal's investigation turned up closed-circuit TV video of the whistleblower visiting a building that houses the Russian consulate at least three times.

Snowden's story, as he told it to Greenwald, makes it appear as though he was improvising after fleeing the U.S., fearing imprisonment, and that it was a happy accident that he ended up with the protection of Russian officials. But The Wall Street Journal's investigation found Snowden's trip was carefully planned, and quotes U.S. government officials who say Snowden likely downloaded around 1.7 million files.

So where are those files, and what do they contain? Have more American secrets fallen into the hands of the Russian government or other foreign actors? No one knows, and Snowden isn't saying.

On May 28, 2014, Snowden disputed accusations that he was working with the Russian government as he sat down for an interview with NBC's Brian Williams.

"I have no relationship with the Russian government at all. I'm -- I've never met the Russian president. I'm not supported by the Russian government," Snowden said. "I'm not taking money from the Russian government. I'm not a spy, which is the real question."

Which leads to another troubling aspect -- that Snowden has a fuzzy relationship with the truth, and likes to change his story depending on who he's talking to or what he believes people want to hear.

Snowden has also claimed he was "trained as a spy," which contradicts his earlier statements. In 2014, Snowden told Wired that he was a "security specialist" at a "top secret facility," but that facility -- the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language -- isn't associated with any clandestine work.

Snowden allegedly embellished his resume when he applied for a job at American consulting firm Booz Allen, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. He claimed he'd studied at John Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and the University of Liverpool, but in each case he'd bent the truth or omitted information, such as not mentioning that he'd dropped out of Liverpool while claiming he was still trying for a degree there.

Those embellishments line up with claims Snowden made in his online life, where he espoused conflicting views and politics as a participant on message boards.

Snowden has also offered conflicting information about how he stole NSA documents and whether he still has access to them. Speaking to Greenwald for The Guardian's early stories on the leaks, Snowden claimed he gave away all the files to Greenwald and Poitras, but as a Business Insider story notes, he later told the South China Morning Post that he wanted to leak more information from the cache so that "journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published."

All together, these reports paint a picture of a conflicted man who did a great service to the U.S., but also caused serious harm. Until Snowden comes clean about how many files he stole, when he began stealing them, his relationship with the Russian government, and the information he's provided to his generous hosts, a pardon is impossible.

Edward Snowden made his name by hammering his native country over its lack of transparency. Now it's his turn to be honest and offer a full accounting of what he's done.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: The Guardian (2) (3), (2), South China Morning Post, NBC News, Business Insider (2), Ars Technica / Photo credit: Michael F. Mehnert/Wikimedia Commons

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