In 2009, I was working as a contract linguist for the FBI when I discovered that the FBI was committing what I believed to be illegal acts. After I revealed these to a blogger, the Department of Justice came after me with a vengeance.
When the FBI confronted me, I admitted what I had done. I tried to negotiate for a reasonable resolution of my case. The documents I disclosed were never explicitly published anywhere, but that didn't matter: the DOJ was adamant that I be charged under the Espionage Act and spend time in jail. Even though I leaked the material because I thought the FBI was doing something illegal, and the American people had a right to know, I faced the threat of dozens of years in prison. I did what was best for my family, and signed a plea agreeing to a 20-month sentence.
Considering Edward Snowden's revelations, what I witnessed pales in comparison. But reading about the secretive NSA programs collecting the private data of millions of Americans did not surprise me. As Snowden explained, he watched for years as the military-industrial-intelligence complex turned our country into a massive surveillance state, and observed a "continuing litany of lies" from senior officials to Congress. Eventually, he decided to speak out, because he could not in good conscience remain silent.
Although he chose a very different path than I did – he fled first to Honk Kong and then to Moscow while apparently seeking asylum in another country – the US authorities are faced with a similar dilemma in how to react to his revelations. Can the DOJ and national security establishment act in a reasonable manner? Or will they allow their fuming anger to consume them into making further irrational decisions?
This ongoing manhunt, accompanied by a smear campaign and threats to throw the book at Snowden, is a grave mistake. If the government really wanted to keep more secrets from coming out, they would do well to let this man of conscience go live his life in some other country. Meanwhile, it would only help them if they were to apologize to the American public for lying to us, and turning the country into what Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg calls the United Stasi of America.
In my case, my family and I pleaded with the DOJ lawyers to avoid a prison term, agree to a lesser punishment and put this case to rest without any media attention. But the FBI and DOJ were insistent on imprisoning me and splashing it all over the media. The ink was not even dry on my plea bargain before they ran to the media with a press release, announcing to the whole world how the 20-month prison sentence will teach me – and any future whistleblowers – a great lesson.
But this punitive strategy, this desire to demonize and imprison people at all costs, is wrong and misguided.
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When Edward Snowden, hiding in Honk Kong, participated in an online chat to explain his motives, he was asked whether the treatment of other whistleblowers influenced him. He responded:
"[Previous whistleblowers] are all examples of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistleblowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrongdoing simply because they'll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers."
So it seems that in their goal to imprison me, to imprison John Kiriakou, to detain Bradley Manning in what have been called cruel and inhumane conditions and seek monstrous punishment, to aggressively prosecute NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake and others – they actually encouraged Snowden to reveal this important information.
The Snowden saga is a great teaching moment for the Obama administration. It is now reaping the fruit of its vindictive behavior.
Even in a democracy certain information needs to remain secret, and those with access to that information must honor their obligation to safeguard it. But Snowden and other whistleblowers have not leaked secrets for their own benefit or enrichment; rather, they sacrificed the comfort of their lives to expose lies, fraud, human rights abuses, and unconstitutionality.
As Martin Luther King pointed out, we should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal". Of course, the abuses revealed by Snowden are a far cry from the atrocities of the Nazis, but the principle, nevertheless, is the same: obedience to the law should not be absolute. Technically, we whistleblowers broke the law, but we felt, as many have felt before, that the obligation to our consciences and basic human rights is stronger than our obligation to obey the law.