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Why Obama Is Wrong About Snowden

Some people call Edward Snowden a hero. Some call him a traitor.

On May 30, former Attorney General Eric Holder made headlines by saying Snowden performed a "public service" by leaking tens of thousands of classified documents that revealed the staggering scope of the NSA's global surveillance apparatus.

President Barack Obama, however, does not agree.

When asked whether Snowden's actions were in fact a public service, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, "The president has had the opportunity to speak on this a number of times, and I think a careful review of his public comments would indicate that he does not." This came just one day after Holder made his comments on a podcast.

Obama doesn't have to praise Snowden, and he doesn't have to forgive him, either. But he should acknowledge that, without Snowden's role in bringing secretive government practices to light, Americans would still be mostly ignorant about their own government spying on them. Without those leaked documents, a series of key reforms would never have taken place.

And without Snowden taking the risk he did, the Obama administration itself would have continued to support the illegal and morally questionable practices of a surveillance apparatus that had been turned on the people it was created to protect.

That last point is key, since Obama himself so forcefully condemned government snooping. He also promised unprecedented transparency when he was making his case to the American people that he should be their next president.

Obama's argument goes like this: Snowden may have had good intentions, but the way he went about exposing government secrets put the U.S. at a disadvantage, crippled its intelligence operations, and endangered U.S. intelligence officers working abroad.

None of those things are true.

"We know now that, despite being embarrassing for the United States, the leaks caused none of the great harm that [U.S.] government officials said would come to pass," the Guardian's Trevor Timm wrote in a piece urging Obama to pardon Snowden and Chelsea Manning, who also leaked a trove of secret documents.

What should Snowden have done, according to Obama? That's where the president's argument becomes disingenuous. Obama and other government officials have argued that whistleblowers are taken seriously, that there are protocols for reporting government abuses of power, and that all Snowden needed to do was take the allegations to the right people, through the right channels, and all of this messy business would have been taken care of properly.

That must be in the same universe in which pigs fly and the sun rises in the west.

As the Guardian notes, the Obama administration has prosecuted more than twice as many whistleblowers as all previous presidents combined. His administration is notorious for coming down hard on officials who speak to the press, even when the aim is to reveal government corruption, illegality and incompetence.

"The Obama administration’s been extremely aggressive in trying to root out whistleblowers within the government,” Michael Isikoff, an investigative reporter for NBC News, told documentary makers for "War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State."

Thomas Drake, a former NSA official who himself became a whistleblower, said that "speaking truth to power is now a criminal act" under the Obama administration, says the Huffington Post.

Drake's big crime was reporting government waste and abuse. When he did it the proper way, through internal channels, he was ignored. So he contacted a reporter, prompting the government to go after him under the Espionage Act.

“It’s extremely dangerous in America right now to be right as a whistleblower when the government is so wrong," Drake says in the documentary, according to Mother Jones.

Almost every government agency has its own whistleblower protection program, and the government says it protects employees who come forward with information about officials doing things they're not supposed to do. But that doesn't reflect reality -- not under the Obama administration.

The truth is, Snowden would have been ignored at best, or intimidated and prosecuted for coming forward with concerns about the NSA and government surveillance programs. Obama knew those programs existed. Officials at the highest level of government knew those programs existed. They happily used those programs, and benefited from illegal surveillance of the American people, until the first damning media reports started to pull the curtain back on an unprecedented and illegal spying apparatus.

Instead of remaining petulant over the Snowden leaks, Obama should take the time he has left -- time he's spent burnishing his legacy -- to make sure whistleblowers are really taken seriously, and that they can come forward without worrying that they'll be fired, imprisoned, or have black-suited men in unmarked cars following them.

And instead of shifting blame elsewhere, Obama should look to his own officials and ask why a contractor without a college degree -- and an enlisted soldier of the lowest rank -- had easy access to some of the government's most damning secrets, including documents that shouldn't have been available to anyone without the highest levels of security clearance.

It takes trust to get people to come forward, and no amount of talk will convince them to risk their necks when they know retaliation will be swift and without mercy. That's on Obama, not Snowden.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: Politico, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, Guardian (2) / Photo credit: TheWikiLeaksChannel/Wikimedia Commons

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