Watergate-era intelligence experts are urging President Barack Obama to allow National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden to return home and negotiate a settlement, saying he helped bring about reform and that his "untenable exile" in Russia benefits nobody.
In a memo sent Tuesday, 15 staffers who worked on the 1970s congressional Church Committee that investigated activities by U.S. intelligence services wrote, "There is no question that Edward Snowden's disclosures led to public awareness which stimulated reform. Whether or not these clear benefits to the country merit a pardon, they surely do counsel for leniency."
Snowden's 2013 revelations that the NSA was conducting mass surveillance against millions of Americans brought about what the signatories describe as a rare case of bipartisan government reform.
Even architects of the Patriot Act such as Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) supported the effort to scale back surveillance in the wake of the leaks, the memo states, noting that "he and his colleagues had not intended to permit the NSA's widespread scooping up of data about Americans' communications."
Snowden's documents also revealed the scope of the NSA's overseas spying operations, which included "eavesdropping on close allies in addition to potential adversaries," it continues. The revelations brought about "the first-ever reforms to afford privacy protection for foreigners from surveillance unless it is necessary to protect our national security."
The Church Committee's full title is the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities. Between 1975-76, the panel disclosed now-infamous government operations such as COINTELPRO, which aimed to infiltrate and discredit progressive political organizations, as well as the FBI's effort to push Martin Luther King, Jr. to commit suicide, among others. The Church Committee's then-chief counsel, Frederick "Fritz" Schwarz, Jr., is now the chief counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice.
The memo notes that Obama and other members of his cabinet, including former Attorney General Eric Holder, have acknowledged Snowden's impact, with the president saying that the public debate and accountability that came out of the revelations "will make us stronger."
The letter continues:
Without Snowden, it would have been decades, if ever, until Americans learned what intelligence agencies acting in our name had been up to. We know first hand that lack of disclosure can cause just as many, if not more, harms to the nation than disclosure. When intelligence agencies operate in the dark, they often have gone too far in trampling on the legitimate rights of law-abiding Americans and damaging our reputation internationally.
"Some oppose leniency for Snowden because he violated the law," the memo states. "But many in the national security establishment who committed serious crimes have received little or no punishment."
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That includes absolving the architects of the CIA's torture program under former President George W. Bush, as well as "those who destroyed evidence of these crimes and misled Congress about illegal torture and surveillance."
High-level officials who made illegal disclosures, such as CIA directors David Petraeus and John Deutch, were also treated with leniency, the letter notes.
"Snowden did not try to mask his identity, or lie to the FBI," it continues. "He knew he would pay a personal price. As he has."
Many have called for Snowden to return to the U.S. and stand trial under the Espionage Act. However, the letter states, "under the Espionage Act, a defense of acting in the public interest is not allowed...[it] was designed to prosecute spying on behalf of foreign nations rather than whistleblowing to inform the American public about government overreach."
"The only way to weigh the public benefits of Snowden's leaks and account for his aim to help America is for the government to mitigate the charges through settlement discussions," it states.
"The status quo is untenable," the signatories write. "There is no question Snowden broke the law. But previous cases in which others violated the same law suggest leniency. And, most importantly, [Snowden's] actions were not for personal benefit, but were intended to spur reform. And they did so."
"We therefore urge that the White House and the Justice Department negotiate a settlement with Edward Snowden of the charges against him that both sides can accept," the letter concludes.
In an interview with The Intercept on Tuesday, Schwarz said, "I felt a flat pardon as opposed to what we call for, a negotiation with leniency, was very unlikely to happen."
Asked whether the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump would stymie surveillance reforms, Schwarz answered, "I think we need to be eternally watchful."