What the U.S. Should Do With Edward Snowden

March 5, 2015

[ UPDATE 19.09.16: The revelation of how much non-US-citizen-based intelligence was released has muddied the water for me on this issue. I honestly feel like I don’t have enough information to make a solid decision on this, and that few people commenting on it probably do either. So take my analysis below at 60%. ]

Many people would like to see Edward Snowden come home, and there is significant controversy regarding how he should be treated by our government if that ever happens.

I have three primary observations:

  1. Edward Snowden is a patriot

  2. Edward Snowden is a criminal

  3. Points 1 and 2 are not mutually exclusive

Everyone who founded our country was engaging in criminal behavior, yet they were opposing what we now accept to be oppression and behaved in a way that we now understand to be heroic.

Edward Snowden will be seen the same way in the future, but the fact that what he did was heroic and patriotic does not cancel its illegality. He knowingly collected and released an extraordinary amount of classified information, and that’s a crime that must be paid for.

But it also seems obvious to anyone—including the most hardened intelligence officers—that he committed that crime for patriotic reasons. He did it because he loves America and he wanted to keep Her ideals from being squelched by malignant secrecy.

The problem is precedent.

We can’t have an eruption of people with privileged access thinking they can become the next super-patriot by leaking classified data. It doesn’t scale. It’s a bad idea. And that’s why it’s illegal.

So Edward Snowden must go to jail.

He should accept incarceration as the price for being courageous in the name of his ideals, just as everyone who signed the declaration of independence knew that signature was simultaneously a death sentence. Walking freely into a cell would be his way of admitting that what he did was not to be taken lightly, and that it was illegal.

Here is the agreement that should be reached.

  1. He should spend 2-10 years in federal prison. Having him serve no jail time simply sends the wrong message to the less smart and less moral who might attempt to replicate his efforts with catastrophic results to national security.

  2. He should make a public statement about how what he did was extremely serious, and that it should not be replicated unless no options remains, and without the utmost caution. He should make it very clear that what he did was illegal, and that anyone doing it should be willing to go to jail if they believe in it. But he should also be allowed to say that he believes what he did was right, and that he stands by the decision.

  3. A new organization should be set up within the government to receive whistleblower information. This organization should be configured with maximum oversight and transparency to our representatives, and should remain a constant bastion against the type of abuse Snowden took action against.

In short, the government needs to simultaneously do three things:

  • Punish him significantly

  • Give him a patriotic high-five

  • Construct an evergreen mechanism to prevent the type of abuse he uncovered

This is the balanced response that is needed to keep copycats from recklessly harming national security while at the same time strengthening our collective priority on government transparency.


  1. Image from Wired.

  2. It’s important to realize that we don’t have all the information related to the case, so we cannot make perfect judgments. We could be seeing 90% of the picture, or just 30%, and we wouldn’t know the difference.

  3. Here’s an anti-Snowden perspective from Slate.