Saturday, September 17, 2016

Snowden is a hero, but that doesn't mean he should be pardoned

I have a weird position on Edward Snowden, which might at first be considered contradictory. In one classic definition, a hero is someone who absorbs downside risk but eschews upside benefit. In this sense, Snowden is obviously a hero. His leak confirming the existence of government abuses made Americans better off, while he himself is apt to rot in prison should he ever leave Russia. By enabling direct democratic accountability over government surveillance programs, Snowden corrected a principal-agent flaw in our intelligence bureaucracy. Bravo.

Source: wikipedia
But just because his selfless actions can be considered heroic doesn't necessarily justify formal institutional validation. Legal actions like pardons operate on two levels. They have a symbolic or moral dimension: on this basis Snowden probably deserves a pardon. But they also have practical consequences for policy, sending signals that shift incentives for other would-be leakers of classified information. On this level a Snowden pardon is considerably less appealing.

Whatever the flaws of US government classification, secrecy and national security protocols--and they are flawed--they fundamentally derive from our legitimate system of representative democracy. Radical transparency in government is just as crazy as total secrecy, and the question of where to draw the line must be subject to democratic accountability, however kludgey and imperfect. Validating individuals who bypass this system based on their own idiosyncratic judgements might feel right when we happen to like the outcome, but it is deeply undemocratic and ultimately corrosive to organizational norms and culture.

This is not to say individual whistleblowing about classified government abuse is an absolute bad; indeed, it has great utility as a bureaucratic 'escape valve'. But the legal incentives must be set to ensure leaks only occur for the most extreme abuses: the legal 'cost' to would-be leakers should be high enough such that only the most committed, selfless patriots will actually pull the trigger.

In this sense, the system kinda sorta 'worked' in the case of Snowden. He fully understood the personal risks, and decided to proceed anyways. He's a hero precisely because of the intense and inevitable legal consequences, and to pardon him anytime soon would be to misunderstand the nature of his choice.

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