Dec. 19, 2013 -- Hours after a White House-selected expert panel presented President Barack Obama with strongly-worded recommendations to rein in the National Security Agency, a member of the panel told ABC News that he still believes the man who exposed the NSA’s vast surveillance operations is guilty of “high crimes.”
“What Mr. [Edward] Snowden did is treason, was high crimes, and there is nothing in what we say that justifies what he did,” said Richard Clarke, a former White House counter-terrorism adviser and current ABC News consultant. “Whether or not this panel would have been created anyway, I don’t know, but I don’t think anything that I’ve learned justifies the treasonous acts of Mr. Snowden.”
Clarke was part of a five-person panel that spent months studying top secret information about the NSA’s foreign and domestic surveillance operations before Wednesday giving Obama 46 recommendations to change the way the secretive agency monitors the world. Perhaps the most drastic among them, the panel said the NSA should stop its years-long practice of vacuuming up so-called telephony meta-data on the phone calls of millions of Americans.
The panel determined that practice was “not essential to preventing [terrorist] attacks” and presented a “lurking danger of abuse.”
Edward Snowden was a former contractor with the NSA who managed to download and steal an estimated 1.7 million confidential and classified documents before fleeing to Hong Kong this summer, where he turned over the documents to former The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and other journalists. The first major report based on Snowden’s documents dealt specifically with the authority given to the NSA to sweep up and store American’s meta-data – a practice a federal judge ruled this week was unconstitutional. Meta-data does not include the content of the communications themselves, but details like the origin, destination and duration of a call.
When Snowden revealed himself as the source of the NSA reports in an interview from Hong Kong, he said he was motivated by principle to pull back the veil on one of the government's most secretive entities and its programs to track Americans' phone records and internet usage.
"The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to," he said in a written interview with The Guardian at the time.
Alongside the steady stream of NSA-related news stories that have followed ever since, a debate has raged over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor for exposing the secret information, which also included details on how the NSA spies on foreign targets and heads of state. In November, the heads of British intelligence, who work closely with American spy agencies including the NSA, told lawmakers there that al Qaeda was “rubbing its hands with glee” over Snowden’s leaks.
“There is no doubt that the leaks from Edward Snowden are extremely damaging,” Sir John Sawers, head of MI-6, said then. “They have put our operations at risk… Al Qaeda are lapping it up.”
Greenwald, who considers himself an advocate-journalist and a staunch defender of Snowden’s, told ABC News Wednesday that the White House panel’s recommendations amounted to a “complete vindication” of what Snowden did.
“The only reason these reforms are possible is because we know about them, and the only reason we know about them is because Mr. Snowden courageously came forward and told us about them,” Greenwald said. “How is it that the United States government can prosecute somebody and threaten them with decades in prison after they expose programs which we now know are unconstitutional according to our own courts, and which the president’s own advisory board say is extremely dangerous?”
Snowden has been charged in the U.S. with espionage-related crimes and is now living in Moscow under temporary asylum. Top U.S. officials have asked Russia to hand him over, after first assuring the former Cold War rival that Snowden wouldn’t be tortured or executed, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused, claiming Snowden has not broken any Russian laws.
When it comes to criminality, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said Wednesday that he believes the head of U.S. intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, is as guilty as Snowden is for “lying” to Congress about the NSA’s programs. Weeks after the first Snowden reports emerged, Clapper flatly told lawmakers that the U.S. does not collect information on millions of Americans – a statement that he was later forced to admit was “clearly erroneous.”
“I think the law is the law and they both broke the law and one shouldn’t get off scot free,” Paul told CNN.
In a surprising revelation, the NSA official put in charge of finding out just how much damage Snowden could do told CBS’s “60 Minutes” he thought the U.S. should offer Snowden amnesty – if only to put the lid back on the NSA’s cookie jar. Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, disagreed.
“This is analogous to a hostage-taker taking 50 people hostage, shooting 10 and then saying, ‘If you give me amnesty, I’ll let the other 40 go,’” he said.