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Don’t just pardon Edward Snowden; give the man a medal

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As Barack Obama’s second term comes to an end, an increasingly loud chorus of voices are calling for a dramatic final presidential act: the pardoning of Edward Snowden. Authoritarians are horrified by this, and, as usual, they are wrong. A pardon really isn’t enough. As I’ve argued before, Snowden deserves a medal.

I can hear the outraged naysayers already. “It was treason!” “He broke the law!” “He should have followed official channels!” They’ll probably point to the House Intelligence Committee report on Snowden, turning a wilfully blind eye to what Barton Gellman calls its “aggressive dishonesty.”

But whether you revere or despise Edward Snowden as a person, the cold hard fact is that America is a far better place because of Edward Snowden’s so-called “treason” — even if it was illegal. A certain apoplectic subset of the intellectual lazy seem unable to cope with the notion that an action can be simultaneously “against well-intended laws” and “good” — and yet, this is so, and the Snowden revelations act as a superb object example.

Let’s perform a results-oriented analysis, shall we? I’m not aware of any allegations, much less proof, that anyone was actually harmed by his revelations. (Well, there are the crazies who think that bad guys had never before dreamed of the notion that they might be surveilled. Apparently bad guys don’t watch movies?) But the revelations utterly transformed the ongoing discussion — the increasingly critical discussion — regarding how much Western governments can and should surveil their citizens, and how much tech companies are allowed to protect their users.

Consider earlier this year, when the FBI wanted to compel Apple to harm all its users’ security for the sake of the contents of a phone they must have already been fairly certain was useless. Consider the proposed Feinstein-Burr bill that would basically ban end-to-end encryption. In the absence of Edward Snowden, these authoritarians could have tried the “we’re the US government, we would never abuse this sacred authority!” approach.

Thanks to Snowden, we know better than to believe that. Thanks to Snowden, we no longer believe that star-chamber rubber-stamp courts such as the FISA court are particularly likely to mete out justice. Thanks to Snowden, authoritarians were forced to confess that their testimony to Congress was, rather than true, the “least untruthful” testimony, a.k.a. a lie. Thanks to Snowden, we learned that the NSA were essentially secretly building the tools of a police state.

I don’t mean to imply that they intended to use them as such; but it is foolhardy in the extreme to build the tools of a police state in the blithe unthinking certainty that they can and will only ever be used for good. And yet that is what authorities everywhere wish to do, and, in fairness, are incentivized to do. It is very hard to work against your incentives for the greater good of your people.

But that is exactly what Edward Snowden did. So pardon the man, bring him home, and give him the Medal of Freedom. It’s no less than he deserves.