NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was charged with espionage earlier this week for releasing classified information to the press. Soon after he made secret NSA documents public, Snowden fled to Hong Kong. A petition for his pardon quickly reached over 50,000 signatures and a national conversation erupted over charges that the United States government is spying on its citizens by capturing electronic data, including our phone calls. Snowden is in hot water to be sure, but what are the additional ramifications of the charges against him and how could our basic rights of free speech be affected?
Many feel that President Obama is waging a war on our civil rights, including our right to free speech and freedom of the press. There are some who say Obama is paving the way for a government controlled media, similar to systems of news dissemination in non-democratic countries.
When Snowden was charged, Glenn Greenwald, the key journalist responsible for publishing the classified information, criticized the Obama administration’s aggressive stance in charging whistleblowers and pointed out that Obama has more than double the rate of pursuing whistleblowers than all other presidents in history combined. In an interview he gave to Anderson Cooper, Greenwald said:
I think the key context, Anderson, is the absolutely atrocious record of the Obama administration when it comes to press freedoms and the treatment of whistleblowers and leakers. The Espionage Act is a 1917 statute that was enacted under the Woodrow administration, designed to criminalize dissent against World War I. And for that reason, it has been used a very sparingly before Barack Obama became president. Only a total of three leakers have been prosecuted under that statute in the pre-Obama era. Under President Obama, we now have seven, more than double the number, of all previous presidents combined…And I think it is one thing to charge Snowden with crimes, but to charge him with espionage which is when somebody works for a foreign government or sells secrets, given what he did is the kind of extreme excess that the Obama administration is guilty of for years now.
Besides the chilling effect of this very aggressive treatment of whistleblowers, journalists themselves are now at risk of being charged with espionage. In an incredibly frightening exchange between David Gregory, himself an esteemed journalist, and Greenwald, Gregory asked “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden…why shouldn’t you be charged with a crime?”
It’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies…The scandal that arose…was that the Obama Admistration is trying to criminalize investigative journalism by going through the emails and phone records of AP reporters, accusing a Fox News journalist of…being a co-conspirator in felonies for working with sources… if you want to embrace that theory…it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with sources, who receives information, is a criminal.
Greenwald went on to say that the theory of criminalizing reporters was part of a “menacing climate” that could perhaps bring investigative journalism to a complete standstill.
Indeed, the climate for journalists these days is scary, especially considering that some lawmakers are now calling for the arrest of Greenwald himself under the Espionage Act, a suggestion previously unheard of in modern times. Journalists in the United States are promised that they won’t be penalized for doing their jobs within the confines of the law. Given the fact that the first amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, Peter King’s (R-NY) suggestion that Greenwald be prosecuted seems particularly unbelievable.
When asked if action should be taken against Greenwald, King said “In this case, when you have someone to disclose secrets like this and threatens to release more, yes, there has to be be — legal action should be taken against him.”
Should King’s suggestion be echoed by other lawmakers, it would seem that the United States could be headed toward a government-controlled media, as journalists may be intimidated by the threat of jail time simply for reporting the news.
If this were to occur, it would put the United States on par with dictatorships and other oppressive regimes. However, Journalist Adrien Chen takes a more balanced approach to the issue. In his article, The Journalist’s Guide to Not Getting Charged with Espionage, he says that many seasoned journalists are not worried about the risks associated with investigative journalism because no reporter has ever been charged under the Espionage Act as of yet. Citing the opinion of a colleague and of a Columbia Law School professor, he writes:
No journalist has ever been charged under the Espionage Act, and it doesn’t seem like they will soon. Even the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice almost certainly won’t risk the political furor of prosecuting a journalist under the Espionage Act, said Columbia Law School Professor David Pozen, who specializes in government leaks. Pozen told me there is a strong and long-standing notion in D.C. that journalists should be protected under the 1st Amendment, even when it comes to leaks.
Still, even the mere suggestion of a journalist being charged with espionage could have a drastic chilling effect on free speech. The American Public has a right to know what their elected officials are up to, especially when what those officials are doing may be a violation of the Constitution. We cannot afford to become a nation that persecutes journalists, or our right to free speech and freedom of the press could suffer irrevocable harm.
By: Rebecca Savastio