Edward Snowden should not be in jail.

Now I’m on a list somewhere….


My final argument is thus….


Edward Snowden was responsible for one of the largest information leaks in modern history. Snowden has an extensive service history ranging from working as a security specialist at the University of Maryland’s Centre for language to working for the management and technology consulting service Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii. In 2013 Snowden enacted his plan to provide journalists with classified information on United States security services and programs. An act that made him famous to some, infamous to others, and brought to life a great debate around ‘whistleblowers’ with many asking: ‘Should Edward Snowden be in jail?’


This paper will argue that Edward Snowden should not be in jail by providing evidence to support the perspective that the moral good of his actions outweighs the moral wrong of the crimes he committed and his actions were necessary to reveal the greater unethical behaviour and policies of the U.S. Government and its agencies.


After leaking confidential documents about a secret National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program Edward Snowden was charged with ‘Theft of Government Property’ and two charges under the Espionage Act of 1917: ‘Unauthorised Communication of National Defense Information’, and ‘Willfull Communication of Classified Communications Intelligence Information to an Unauthorised Person’ (United States District Court 2013). If Snowden returns to the United States these charges mean that he could be fined, forced to return any government materials he possesses, and face up to thirty years in jail as well as face any additional charges that could be filed (Constitution Daily 2013). To avoid these charges Snowden sought asylum in Russia and currently resides in an undisclosed location.

Although Snowden has been labelled a ‘whistleblower’ he is not protected under the ‘Whistleblower Protection Act’ of 1989. The act protects federal employees who disclose secret information about the federal government. The act allows for the disclosure of information pertaining to certain conditions such as an abuse of authority, or if there is a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety. The act only applies if the disclosure of information is not prohibited by any law or special order and the information must be disclosed to a Special Counsel or to an Inspector General of an agency. Snowden violated these conditions by leaking information that was required by Executive Order to be kept secret and by leaking information to the press and not to official channels.
Snowden has also been inaccurately labelled a traitor according to J. Richard Broughton who defines treason as one of the most serious offences in the United States legal justice system. Broughton says there is a shortcoming with the political leaders of America as to their understanding about the law of American treason, arguing that treason requires the moral intent to aid the enemy against a previous ally. Broughton analysed the Snowden case and found it presents inconsistencies in the application of the modern law of treason on the basis that Snowden assisted enemies of the United States without the intent of betraying his country. He concludes that Snowden may not be guilty of treason but his conduct should still be condemned nonetheless (Broughton, J R 2015).

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt commented on Snowden’s moral intent. In an interview with writer Tom Lamont the actor spoke of his experience meeting and interviewing Edward Snowden saying “I left knowing without a doubt that what [Snowden] did, he did because he believed it was the right thing to do, that he believed it would help the country he loves.” The actor went on to say that he believed what Edward Snowden did was the right thing to do (The Guardian 2015).

At the time of Snowden’s revelations then Senator for Georgia Saxby Chambliss was interviewed by David Gregory of NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ program. Chambliss was asked if Edward Snowden should be prosecuted to which he replied: “It depends on exactly what he’s charged with but as to whether or not he’s a traitor is a decision that would be left up to prosecutorial team.” He went on to say “If he’s not a traitor than he’s pretty darn close to it,” (NBC News Meet the Press 2013). In the same interview Chambliss also said Snowden should be brought to justice because terrorists and “bad guys” around the world were using different tactics and knew more about how information was being gathered on them as a result of his disclosure. Reports from both Vice News and The Huffington Post contradict these claims by reporting that U.S. officials are as of 2015 yet to release reliable proof of damage (The Huffington Post 2014, and Vice News 2015).

Ed Morrissey of the New York Times gave further support for the belief that Snowden’s behaviour was ethical albeit criminal and thus deserving of prosecution. In a 2013 article Morrissey argued that despite Snowden’s actions uncovering illegal and unconstitutional behaviour the actions he took still broke laws that were intended to keep assets and national security data secret from America’s enemies.  Morrissey argued that Snowden should be prosecuted on the simple basis that he broke the law.

Through analysis of other information leaker’s punishments it appears that the severity and conditions of punishment are dependent upon levels of influence. Leon Panetta, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, gave the makers of the 2012 film ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ access to details of the top secret raid that lead to the death of Osama Bin Ladin. Film maker Mark Boal was permitted to attend a speech where all special operators of the raid were seated at the front in uniform with name tapes. The speech violated a request from a US Special Operations Command that the Special Operations Planner not be identified by name or as having participated in the events in any way (The Guardian 2015). Panetta was not prosecuted. In a similar incident former military General David Petraeus pleaded guilty to providing classified information to his biographer on the identities of covert officers, war strategies, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, and quotes from high-level National Security Council meetings. Petraeus was fined but did not serve jail time.

Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a state department contractor, pleaded guilty to violating the Espionage Act by leaking details of North Korea’s nuclear program to a Fox News reporter. Similarly to Snowden Kim said he leaked information with the intent of informing the American people (The Guardian 2015). Chelsea Manning was given a thirty-five year sentence after she gave confidential U.S. files to Wikileaks during her time as an Army Intelligence Officer in Iraq. Manning also said the reason she leaked information was for the love of her country and from her sense of duty to others (The Guardian 2015).

Edward Snowden’s case for prosecution is comparable to that of Daniel Ellsberg’s case during the 1970’s. Daniel Ellsberg was assigned to the Pentagon Papers Project (PPP): a project that secretly catalogued America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. After the papers were completed Daniel Ellsberg gave a copy of the papers to reporter Neil Sheehan of the New York Times.  On July 13th 1971 the New York Times began publishing stories on the papers. Sometime after Ellsberg was arrested and put on trial in 1973. The trial ended with all charges being dismissed against Ellsberg due to governmental misconduct during the trial. The prosecutors learned that two government employees had burglarised the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an attempt to secure information that would be damaging to Ellsberg’s defence. In the cases of Snowden, Ellsberg, Kim, and Manning moral intent and the effects their disclosure had in regards to public health and safety is not given adequate credibility during prosecution.

Wikileaks uploaded a transcript of a statement Edward Snowden gave to human rights groups at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on Friday 12th July 2012. Snowden discussed the legality of his country’s actions saying the U.S. had violated the 4th and 5th amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Article 12 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by using “massive, pervasive surveillance,” (Wikileaks 2012, and Scheuerman, W E 2014). About his actions he said: “Accordingly, I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing. I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell US secrets. I did not partner with any foreign government to guarantee my safety. Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice… That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets.” (Wikileaks 2012, and Scheuerman, W E 2014).


The general consensus provided by sources throughout the argument is that while Edward Snowden’s intentions were morally correct he violated U.S. law and in the process potentially jeopardised U.S. security service operations. The consensus differs not with the intent but of the consequences of his actions. One perspective is that he should not be prosecuted as his actions were just. The other perspective is that he violated U.S. law and should therefore be prosecuted on this basis regardless of his intentions. There is also evidence to suggest that Snowden’s prosecution would be disproportionate to his crimes due to his position within the federal government and the content of his revelations.


In conclusion Edward Snowden should not be in jail. Although he violated U.S. law the reasoning behind the violation supports the greater moral good as it revealed greater crimes (both ethical and legal) being committed by the U.S. government and its agencies. Additionally there are no links to any harm being caused by Snowden’s revelations. There is also a large bias in regards to the prosecution of United States federal information leakers (whitleblowers) that appears dependent on level of influence and context of information leaked.

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