As FPF cofounder and iconic whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg told me earlier this month: “I’ve been waiting 40 years for Edward Snowden and his revelations are the most important in US history, including the Pentagon Papers.”
Despite the importance of his revelations, the US purposefully stranded Snowden in Russia by canceling his passport while he was in transit from Hong Kong, essentially forcing him into exile.
We already know the government will attempt to intimidate and crush whistle-blowers who challenge national security state orthodoxy. Genuflect and get in line, or pay the heavy cost. Look no further than Thomas Drake, Bill Binney and J Kirk Wiebe, three NSA whistle-blowers whose homes were raided and lives were destroyed for the cardinal sin of informing the US public about crimes committed by their government.
It is hard to blame Snowden for not wanting to come back and rot in a US jail. Chelsea Manning spent three years in jail awaiting trial, nearly a year of it in torturous conditions. She has now been sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaks exposing war crimes which have been almost universally acknowledged as having caused no real harm to the US.
Snowden may suspect that his rights would not be protected, given that a prosecution under the US’ Espionage Act would leave him no way to mount a public interest defense if he came back to stand trial. Often we export our ideals, sometimes rightfully, sometimes tragically. Now when we do so, our action is drenched in irony: Russia is providing safe haven to a US whistle-blower and east Berlin, where the Stasi once roamed, is now where journalists and privacy rights advocates feel safe to work.
Not so in the US these days, it seems. Whether whistleblower, source or journalist, if you expose crimes you become the hunted. What must students and young people think when they see some of the brightest minds — and the fiercest watchdogs — of a generation unable to practice journalism in the US?
If we want to turn the tide against the national security state, we need to stand with those souls brave enough to confront its crimes. Just two months before Britain gave the US its absurd “heads up” about Miranda’s detention, Holder vowed not to prosecute journalists, saying: “The Department [of Justice] has not prosecuted, and as long as I’m attorney general, will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job.”
Will Holder, as chief law enforcement officer in the US, now go on record to say that he will guarantee the safe return and safe passage of journalists who have exercised their rights under the First Amendment? Or should we now conclude that the US is willing to create a generation of exiled watchdogs who are trying to hold their government accountable from afar?
John Cusack is a filmmaker, writer and a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation