Federal officials are ticked about a New York Times editorial published Thursday, not so much over its call for clemency or a plea deal for leaker Edward Snowden, but for accusing intelligence agencies of intentionally violating the law.
Drawing the particular ire of Obama administration officials is the Times’s suggestion that Snowden should be off the hook because he revealed that the government set out to act illegally on a broad scale.
“When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government,” the Times’s editorial board wrote in making the case for a deal to return Snowden to the U.S.
Some practices of the National Security Agency, such as the collection of telephone metadata in the U.S., may be ultimately ruled unlawful or unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. However, that’s a far cry from justifying the Times’s implication that officials set out to violate the law. In this case, officials repeatedly obtained authorization from 15 federal court judges for the metadata gathering.
Spokespeople for various government entities, including the White House, declined to give a response on the record to the Times editorial. Some referred questions to the Justice Department, since the central theme of the Times editorial was about Snowden’s potential criminal liability.
However, one government official speaking on condition of anonymity called the editorial “frustrating.”
“There’s absolutely no evidence any government officials or employees violated the law,” the official said Thursday. “The piece is based on an absolutely inaccurate premise and that is that laws have been broken … Snowden broke the law and the people conducting these activities were doing so in compliance with the law.”
To be sure, there have been reports of abuses by a small number of NSA employees or military personnel involving gathering of data on girlfriends and boyfriends or for other personal reasons. However, none of these cases involved the telephone metadata program and most or all related to traditional NSA signals intelligence from overseas.
Whether Snowden broke the law may ultimately be for a jury to decide. However, it seems quite possible to make a case for clemency or a plea deal for Snowden without asserting that officials intentionally violated the law.