Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was on a plane to Hong Kong in May 2013 when media outlets, including The Washington Post, began publishing leaked documents describing the U.S.’s post 9/11 domestic surveillance programs. By the time he landed, the U.S. government had already issued a warrant for his arrest.
Though The Washington Post received two Pulitzer Prizes for investigating the surveillance documents, The Post’s editorial board was all too quick to point a finger at Snowden for “causing possibly ‘tremendous damage’ to national security.”
As Snowden appeared in the media most recently in Oliver Stone’s film “Snowden,” The Washington Post penned an editorial calling for “No Pardon for Edward Snowden,” supporting the prosecution and agreeing with President Obama, claiming that Snowden dangered American security system by revealing too much information.
Mark Felt helped Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down a president in the Watergate Scandal. Jeffrey S. Wigand changed the way Americans regarded cigarettes, nicotine and the tobacco industry. Daniel Ellsberg, The New York Times’ source for the Pentagon papers, shifted the United States’ perception of the Vietnam War. All three whistleblowers continued to live happy and successful lives, and weren’t prosecuted for their actions. So why did that change with Snowden?
Snowden made the American public aware of the depth and breadth of surveillance programs the American intelligence community was undertaking, such as recording domestic telephone metadata, sparking national controversy and discourse surrounding the validity of the programs that continue today.
“Cases like Edward Snowden’s are precisely the reason the president’s constitutional pardon power exists,” said the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Anthony D. Romero in a submission to The Los Angeles Times.
To some he is a patriot for exposing an overreaching surveillance program, and to others he is a traitor for compromising national security. Regardless of whether his actions are justified or not, The Post benefitted from this knowledge and then condemned his actions.
The Obama Administration is keen on prosecuting him under the Espionage Act upon his return to the United States, but many have called for the president to pardon the former NSA contractor, claiming that he should be protected as a whistleblower.
While the editorial boards and the newsrooms of The Washington Post and other major newspapers are separate and don’t necessarily reflect the entire staff, there is still a profound message in The Post’s editorial decision — a message that highlights a hypocrisy at The Washington Post and in media across the country, that still fuels a perception of double standards and ultimately, poor journalism ethics.
The Post’s actions further perpetuate the beliefs that one day media is an ally, and the next a traitor.
By publishing and covering the documents that Snowden leaked — at great personal risk — The Post declares them to be in the public interest. President Obama himself, in the aftermath of the leaks by Snowden and the increased popularity of sites like WikiLeaks, acknowledged the need to increase transparency and accountability in government surveillance programs.
“Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service,” said the The Washington Post’s executive editor Martin Baron when the publication earned the Pulitzer. “In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight.”
While the diversity of opinions on the matter must be acknowledged, The Washington Post’s editorial board missed criticizing those within its own ranks that helped spark the national debate in the first place.
It isn’t a question of whether or not Snowden deserves to come home free. Rather, it’s a shift in the spotlight away from him and to The Washington Post. If even whistleblowers can’t look to media for protection, then no one can.