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Edward Snowden Is No Traitor
Why treason charges against the NSA whistleblower don't hold up
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There are a number of narratives being floated by the usual suspects to attempt to demonstrate that Edward Snowden is a traitor who has betrayed secrets vital to the security of the United States. All the arguments being made are essentially without merit. Snowden has undeniably violated his agreement to protect classified information, which is a crime. But in reality, he has revealed only one actual secret that matters, which is the United States government’s serial violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution through its collection of personal information on millions of innocent American citizens without any probable cause or search warrant.

That makes Snowden a whistleblower, as he is exposing illegal activity on the part of the federal government. The damage he has inflicted is not against U.S. national security but rather on the politicians and senior bureaucrats who ordered, managed, condoned, and concealed the illegal activity.

First and foremost among the accusations is the treason claim being advanced by such legal experts as former Vice President Dick Cheney, Speaker of the House John Boehner, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. The critics are saying that Snowden has committed treason because he has revealed U.S. intelligence capabilities to groups like al-Qaeda, with which the United States is at war. Treason is, in fact, the only crime that is specifically named and described in the Constitution, in Article III: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

Whether Washington is actually at war with al-Qaeda is, of course, debatable since there has been no declaration of war by Congress as required by Article I of the Constitution. Congress has, however, passed legislation, including the Authorization for Use of Military Force, empowering the President to employ all necessary force against al-Qaeda and “associated” groups; this is what Cheney and the others are relying on to establish a state of war.

But even accepting the somewhat fast and loose standard for being at war, it is difficult to discern where Snowden has been supporting the al-Qaeda and “associated groups” enemy. Snowden has had no contact with al-Qaeda and he has not provided them with any classified information. Nor has he ever spoken up on their behalf, given them advice, or supported in any way their activities directed against the United States. The fallback argument that Snowden has alerted terrorists to the fact that Washington is able to read their emails and listen in on their phone conversations—enabling them to change their methods of communication—is hardly worth considering, as groups like al-Qaeda have long since figured that out. Osama bin Laden, a graduate in engineering, repeatedly warned his followers not to use phones or the Internet, and he himself communicated only using live couriers. His awareness of U.S. technical capabilities was such that he would wear a cowboy hat when out in the courtyard of his villa to make it impossible for him to be identified by hovering drones and surveillance satellites.

Attempts to stretch the treason argument still further by claiming that Snowden has provided classified information to Russia and China are equally wrong-headed, as the U.S. has full and normally friendly diplomatic relations with both Moscow and Beijing. Both are major trading partners. Washington is not at war with either nation and never has been apart from a brief and limited intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1918. Nor is there any evidence that Snowden passed any material directly to either country’s government or that he has any connection to their intelligence services.

Then there is the broader “national security” argument. It goes something like this: Washington will no longer be able to spy on enemies and competitors in the world because Snowden has revealed the sources and methods used by the NSA to do so. Everyone will change their methods of communication, and the United States will be both blind and clueless. Well, one might argue that the White House has been clueless for at least 12 years, but the fact is that the technology and techniques employed by NSA are not exactly secret. Any reasonably well educated telecommunications engineer can tell you exactly what is being done, which means the Russians, Chinese, British, Germans, Israelis, and just about everyone else who has an interest is fully aware of what the capabilities of the United States are in a technical sense. This is why they change their diplomatic and military communications codes on a regular basis and why their civilian telecommunications systems have software that detects hacking by organizations like NSA.

Foreign nations also know that what distinguishes the NSA telecommunications interception program is the enormous scale of the dedicated resources in terms of computers and personnel, which permit real time accessing of billions of pieces of information. NSA also benefits from the ability to tie into communications hubs located in the continental United States or that are indirectly accessible, permitting the U.S. government to acquire streams of data directly. The intelligence community is also able to obtain both private data and backdoor access to information through internet, social networking, and computer software companies, the largest of which are American. Anyone interested in more detail on how the NSA operates and what it is capable of should read Jim Bamford’s excellent books on the subject.

The NSA’s capabilities, though highly classified, have long been known to many in the intelligence community. In 2007, I described the Bush administration’s drive to broaden the NSA’s activities, noting that

The president is clearly seeking open-ended authority to intercept communications without any due process, and he apparently intends to do so in the United States… House Republican leader John Boehner (OH), citing 9/11, has described the White House proposal as a necessary step to ‘break down bureaucratic impediments to intelligence collection and analysis.’ It is not at all clear how unlimited access to currently protected personal information that is already accessible through an oversight procedure would do that. ‘Modernizing’ FISA would enable the government to operate without any restraint. Is that what Boehner actually means?

It was clear to me that in 2007 Washington already possessed the technical capability to greatly increase its interception of communications networks, but I was wrong in my belief that the government had actually been somewhat restrained by legal and privacy concerns. Operating widely in a permissive extralegal environment had already started six years before, shortly after 9/11, under the auspices of the Patriot Act and the Authorization for Use of Military Force.

The White House’s colossal data mining operation has now been exposed by Edward Snowden, and the American people have discovered that they have been scrutinized by Washington far beyond any level that they would have imagined possible. Many foreign nations have also now realized that the scope of U.S. spying exceeds any reasonable standard of behavior, so much so that if there are any bombshells remaining in the documents taken by Snowden they would most likely relate to the specific targets of overseas espionage.

Here in the United States, it remains to be seen whether anyone actually cares enough to do something about the illegal activity while being bombarded with the false claims that the out of control surveillance program “has kept us safe.” It is interesting to observe in passing that the revelations derived from Snowden’s whistleblowing strongly suggest that the hippies and other counter-culture types who, back in the 1960s, protested that the government could not be trusted actually had it right all along.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Uh, Snowden has not been charged with treason–at least not legally. (And no, I don’t consider him a “traitor”, as he isn’t seeking to betray his homeland to some other country).

    What he has been charged with is espionage, and his conduct is consistent with that charge. Whether he’s a hero or a heel I won’t get into.

  2. Before anyone else notes my lapsus calami, U.S. soldiers did indeed fight against the Chinese in Korea, but it was a U.N. authorized police action, not a war.

  3. I appreciate an article that avoids the false dichotomy – “is Edward Snowden a hero or traitor”. One does not have to consider him a hero, or a noble figure, in order to recognize that from what we’ve seen so far the only thing he’s done is akin to playing Toto and pulling back the curtain to expose to the common man the workings of a system that foreign governments, large corporate interests, and the properly-connected were already well aware of, and that those with technical savvy (including those in terrorist organizations) could already guess at.

    I suspect that to some extent the American media has been pushing this dichotomy, allowing them to focus on painting Snowden with increasingly less flattering hues, since it distracts from what most of us should be focusing on – why is it that the Government can systematically be operating a system that most Americans are at least somewhat uncomfortable with, while the media has with only a few exceptions stayed relatively mute about the growth and omnipresence of the security state?

  4. spite says:

    Americas founding fathers were all traitors to the British crown. Depending who calls you a traitor, it is not always a bad thing, the national securicrats and the usual warmongering gang that are calling Snowden a traitor tells me that Snowden is right.

  5. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Excellent article. One remark however: In the last sentence the author mentions that maybe those that say “the government could not be trusted” are right. I’d like to remind Mr. Giraldi that “We the People” are still the government, officially anyway, and that those who work for “the government” of the United States directly are many individuals, and some are more trustworthy than others. In general, I think we all need to give each other a break whenever possible in these tough economic times…

  6. Johann says:

    There is an irrational fear of terrorism. With or without a spy program, the chance of one being killed by a terrorist is minuscule. On the other hand, tens of thousands of people are murdered every year by common criminals. That is an order of magnitude larger threat and something to be concerned about. But law enforcement cannot really protect citizens from common criminals either. They can only investigate and pursue the perpetrators after the fact. One must arm and protect himself or herself. Complete security would require cameras and microphones in every house, building, street, and complete coverage of the countryside, which of course is impossible. And if it were possible, even the most fearful among us would probably not want that.

    Bottom line – This country was founded on the principles of freedom, not fear. Those in our government who are willfully violating the 4th amendment are the criminals.

  7. Unfortunately Mr. Giraldi, the only way to get these types of programs under control as well we both know is to have a very acutely aware populace as to what is going on, a congress that cares more about the constitution, rule of law, and the people they espouse to represent than their egos and re-election agenda, and a President that cares for the same.

    None of these are present. And it pretty much ensures what we all know will happen. Snowden will go away one way or another, and this issues will end with some superficial changes and wrist slapping but nothing more.

    President Obama, enjoys the expansion of the security state just as much as the so called conservatives in congress. The people are not well enough informed to see past the rhetoric about Snowden to understand that this is the kind of government intrusion that our founding fathers were deathly afraid of and fought to keep out of the hands of the government.

    As much as I wish or hope that people would wake up and cry for the justice we are due, I just don’t see it happening. I see us being lulled back into silent acceptance through one means or another. And it makes me awfully sad.

  8. Obama is a traitor to the Constitution. Snowden is a traitor to Obama. A double negative. By my calculation that makes Snowden a patriot.

    Spin it any way you want. The question is which side are you on? Will you stand with the government or the constitution? With the Police State or with the people?

    For now it is still possible to claim (or feign) neutrality. Unless you work directly or indirectly for Leviathan. Or unless you have already expressed an opinion one way or the other on line or on the phone. Or unless you support the Democratic or Republican political parties. They ARE the government after all.

    For what it’s worth, I recommend you cast your lot with the Fascists. They have the military and police. They have the spooks and mercenaries. They work for the people who have all the money. They know where you are and what you are thinking. Resistance is futile.

  9. spite says:

    I agree with most of what you say, except for the point where the complete coverage that you say is impossible – its now possible or at least will very soon possible. Technology is now no longer a limiting factor, having a microphone in every now would be feasible, the only thing stopping it is a general resistance from society, but looking at the general lack of interest in the growing surveillance state, even this will with time be accepted.

  10. cdugga says:

    Ah, yeah. Because the classified information was not specifically provided to an enemy of the US, and he has not rcvd any consideration from said enemy, revealing classified information and fleeing to russia is not necessarily the act of a traitor. Now, of course if he writes a book, and then profits indirectly from providing US classified secret information, we might have to reconsider the charge. Really, I am still kind of confused that there were people in the US, other than those that get to serve on jury’s, that were unaware of what the NSA was likely doing. Of course it was not on the evening news until now, but it seemed like it was allot of other places since I first remember seeing it on that liberal biased PBS frontline documentary at least a year ago. I assume that some part of the massive homeland security industry is collecting some kind of info on just about all of us, so I enjoy walking around naked inside my house and mooning the windows every once in awhile. I’m also kind of put out that a right wing stand would rest on the right of a young operative to decide for the rest of the country what was best, in order to justify using his access to reveal what so many said was in the national interest to keep a secret. Sounds allot like that GOP political strategy that claims ideology follows political advantage in everything other than starving the beast.

  11. I don’t think enough people are concerned about the degree of spying going on in the world today.

    Why does the U.S. government keep tabs on me? I don’t know, but I’m none too happy about it. I like to visit from time to time, but now I wonder whether I should go and submit my person to the tender mercies of the U.S. security apparatus?

    It is alarming.

    And it’s the same thing with every state on earth.

    Where and how can I hide? Why should my snark and ill thought out posts on the web indict me for all eternity?

    Perhaps the Internet is not the great thing I thought it was. Every sword has two edges…

  12. D says:

    Small correction – there is another crime mentioned in the U.S. Constitution: counterfeiting (Article I, Section 8).

  13. tbraton says:

    “apart from a brief and limited intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1918.”

    Just to clarify a small point, PG, the “brief and limited intervention” in Russia lasted from September 1918 until April 1, 1920, roughly 19 months. Somebody might get the impression from your piece that U.S. troops were there only in 1918. Most Americans are probably totally unaware of our intervention in Russia’s civil war. I only became aware of it upon reading the first book I ever read by George Kennan back in the 60’s, “Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin.” I remember being startled at the revelation but can’t remember why.

    “U.S. soldiers did indeed fight against the Chinese in Korea, but it was a U.N. authorized police action, not a war.”

    Or, as we might refer to Korea today, a “kinetic military activity.” Our rhetoric hadn’t evolved so far by the early 50’s.

    I totally agree with your main point.

  14. Actually, one can also reasonably claim the the US part in surpressing the Boxer Rebellion also counts as having been at war with China, as the Chinese do see this as such.

  15. Andrei Martyanov [AKA "Andrew"] says:

    A very interesting assessments of Snowden are in Russian media. The verdicts revolve mostly around idealism, “not finding the niche” and the lack of proper education. Some parallels were even drawn with US citizens who moved to the communes in the jungles of South America to live out their utopian dreams. For me personally, somehow, Dean Reed comes to mind.

  16. JB says:

    Ed, it’s touchingly naive that you believe “‘We the People’ are still the government.” Hell no, we’re not.

    Moreover, how can someone be “trustworthy” if the very purpose, definition, and effect of their job is to carry out federal-government functions that are nowhere authorized by the U.S. Constitution? How can a DEA or ATF agent be “trustworthy”, or what does “trustworthy” even mean, when his agency’s very existence violates the Constitution and infringes on Americans’ rights?

    While the IRS agent is stealing other Americans’ earnings, should they respect or praise him as “trustworthy” because he doesn’t take any of the loot for himself (other than his salary, benefits, and pension, that is)?

    While the ATF agent is infringing on other Americans’ Second Amendment / self-defense rights, should they respect or praise him as “trustworthy”?

    While the FBI or NSA agent is reading or listening to or searching through our “private” e-mails, phone conversations, and IMs, does it help us that he is somehow “trustworthy”?

  17. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    What does revealing the US’s spying activities on the EU, China, and Germany count as? Clearly those documents were not leaked because Edward Snowden felt they were unconstitutional overreaches on the American public.

  18. JB says:

    P.S. Ed, people who surveill, steal from, intimidate, and harass peaceful American citizens — often without a judicially issued warrant based on probable cause — don’t deserve “a break in these tough economic times.” They are criminals and thugs and deserve imprisonment and severe disapproval and criticism.

    WE, peaceful Americans, are the ones who deserve a break from the bullies and thieves who call themselves “the government.” They are little more than the largest, most powerful, most ruthless gang with a great propaganda and indoctrination operation.

  19. I don’t use the term ironic very often as it is ridiculously over-used. Still, I can’t help finding this case deeply so, in that if Snowden had only shared our secrets with the Israelis, he might now have a job waiting for him at the Woodrow Wilson Center or perhaps AEI.

    He did violate his contract. For that he should be given the kind of punishments the other, more orthodox NSA whistle-blowers. These were rather light if I recall.

  20. PG, agreed – a “traitor” no. a narcissistic whiney, gen-x, faux victim? perhaps. as an American I admire what Snowden did. it just seems that other before him; Ellsberg, Manning, et al did it with a tad less arrogance. but again, this stuff (surveillance) has been a open secret. the idea that “bad guys” were unaware of the scope and capabilities of the NSA and other intelligence agencies is, in my opinion, childish. the bigger question for me is; how do these emotionally/psychologically weak people get security clearances? or do they “breakdown” after being hired? either way, I feel no more/less threatened than I did before May 2013.

  21. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Nothing, unfortunately, new here, either.

  22. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Snowden is a hero and could potentially be the catalyst that pushes us to fix our corrupt government.

  23. Jeff says:

    So exactly how has the USG violated the 4th Amendment? All the programs were done IAW congressionally enacted law, and any of the surveillance laws that have made it to the USSC have been found constitutional. You premise your entire argument on the premise that the USG has acted in violation of the Constitution, but offer absolutely no explanation of how this is so. You can argue the laws are bad ideas and should be repealed, and you may be right, but throwing out an accusation that the USG is violating the Constitution is reckless without providing explanation.

  24. mijj says:

    on one hand you have the People of the Nation. On the other you have a Corporate-Government Mafia organization. The Mafia is controlling the Nation as a means to accumulate power for itself against the best interests of the People. Like the Mafia would do if it was running any neighborhood. Exposing Mafia control methods is no crime against the People.

    Snowden is loyal to the People, the Mafia regard him as a traitor.

  25. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    First, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the information being collected by the NSA (i.e., phone records) don’t need a warrant to be collected. Second, even though that is true, the NSA still got a warrant to collect them from the FISA court. Nothing that has so far been revealed about what the NSA has done is either: a) unconstitutional or b) illegal.

  26. Everyone would do well to remember that when it comes to religion and politics, nothing is ever what it appears on the surface. It is very likely that the Snowden affair is nothing more than an elaborate attempt on the US government’s part to install a spy in Russia, who is posing as a genuine whistle blower fleeing from justice. Just how much has this supposedly high school drop-out revealed that was not already known to anyone who bothered looking? And what better way to discredit and neutralize influential and effective investigative reporters like Glen Greenwald and Phillip Giraldi than by fooling them into accepting such an obvious hoax? If you look at the way Putin is now backing off on allowing Snowden into Russia as a fugitive spy, it appears he may have already figured it out, and is now simply playing along to see what the next move will be from the US.

  27. Good for the Globe is not equal to good for Globocop. I prefer to think and rethink about our relationship as interhuman to unhurt human beings.

  28. Bobby says:

    Mr. Giraldi asserts that the United States has engaged in “serial violation[s] of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution through its collection of personal information….”

    I don’t see where the “collection of personal information” runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment guarantees persons the right to retreat into their homes and be free of warrantless government intrusions therein. This has been expanded to include other places where the search would involve commission of a trespass, e.g., physically attaching a GPS device to a car, or entering one’s property with a drug-sniffing dog.

    Thus, in making his assertion, Mr. Geraldi should at least demonstrate where the alleged trespass occurred. As far as I can tell, individuals have no vested property interest in the data that is collected. And in the absence of a vested property interest, there is no Fourth Amendment violation, which leaves Geraldi with no argument.

    I’m not suggesting that Snowden is a traitor. I doubt that he is. But there is no question that his conduct was illegal, and that there is no applicable affirmative defense to that conduct. Nor do see any great boon that Snowden’s leaking has afforded me. Were people really so dumb to believe that the government wasn’t data-mining their electronic communications?

  29. Bobby says:


    Snowden was born in mid-1983. By most definitions, he is not a Gen-Xer (which, by most definitions, requires one to have been by December 1981). I think it is more accurate to refer to him as a Millennial. Entitlement and narcissism are not traits of Gen-Xers; they are general traits of Millennials, however.

  30. zach says:

    Those of you saying that NSA spying on millions upon millions of Americans is not a violation of the 4th amendment clearly have never read the amendment. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” If our founding fathers had phones and email capabilities, that would be on the list, but they didnt. They had paper messages sent by couriers, which in essence, is the same thing. If you are gullible enough to believe they are justified, then you need to be monitered so you don’t choke on a small toy or lick the window too long.

  31. marcus says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself Zach. Bobby you must be willfully ignorant to say that the government by monitoring your emails, web searches, location data, and phone data is not breaking the 4th amendment spelled out below like Zach said.

    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

    Snowden is a hero and a martyr for Liberty in my eyes.

  32. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    It is imperative to understand the oath of office, of service and of our citizenship. We swear to uphold the Constitution, to defend the Constitution, to protect the Constitution. Nothing in that oath states or implies fealty to the government or the administration or lawlessness by officials large or small.

    Snowden is defending our Constitutional rights while exposing the lawless government.

    Our nation is nothing without its Constitution. Millions of men and women in uniform and various silent services have served, been lost, died, were crippled and still are on the firing line all over the globe. They do that for the Constitutional rights, not Executive Orders, secret court permissions and bureaucratic claptrap.

    The oath of the President is simple. To preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.

    The entire fealty system of America, from top to bottom, is focused on the Constitution, not government.

    Snowden, like Ellsberg, is risking all for the Constitution.

  33. Bobby says:


    If I’m so willfully ignorant, please cite case law to support your position. A subjective desire for privacy is not the same thing as a reasonable expectation of privacy.

  34. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Excellent piece, “conservative” in the original meaning of the term, seeking to conserve what is most valuable in our American constitutional traditions.

  35. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    In your wonderful article on Snowden, you stand up for the truth and our constitution, thank you.
    But you are missing the point, is it on purpose?
    The real reason this is so dangerous is not some vague ancient document, or some intellectual debate about “privacy” or “civil liberties,” but one, tangible, terrifying reality that is summed up in one word.
    Even if a pol or a judge or a high ranking military officer is squeaky clean, this program lets the corporate coup d’etat masters have the goods on all their relatives and friends.
    If you think this has not been already used, you are not following the rest of the whistle blowers. Think madame Lindsay Graham for instance. Harry Reid comes to mind as well. What about SCOTUS?
    Please have the courage to talk about the real terror of this program.

  36. zach says:

    Subjective desire? Reasonable expectation? You dance around the subject in the most liberal, leftist of ways. And this shouldn’t be a left or right side issue. Every American is entitled to privacy. Bobby, you may be fine with giving up American freedoms for so-called “safety”, but some of us still believe in the people, and their inalienable rights. And to give up those rights is willful ignorance.

  37. sowhat says:

    Mr. Giraldi, you have valid points but, if nothing else, the Govmant will make life even more miserable for him than heretofore. That’s what they do. Sadly, The Rule of Law is a term used for grand-standing and little else (I can’t get that hideous picture of Joe Biden pontificating out of my mind.
    I like your articles. Thanks

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