If time heals all wounds, then Edward Snowden needs more time to get right in Washington.
Snowden is exiled in Russia, having been charged with espionage and no sign that President Barack Obama will grant him clemency.
On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul launched a long floor speech hoping to end the bulk data collection programs that Snowden exposed. Most of the bipartisan coalition of senators who aided Paul in relief did so while promoting a bill that would end one of the programs — the one collecting telephone metadata. And a few weeks ago, a federal court ruled the program violated the law.
But still, Snowden still sits alone. No senators on Wednesday said their perception of the former National Security Agency contractor had softened or changed since he two years ago leaked to the media data exposing the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
Comments around the Senate ranged from outright contempt to calling him a criminal whose actions may have led to some good. But no one defended him. “[Edward] Snowden is not a hero,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “He was enormously disruptive to the national security of the United States of America. He is not a whistleblower. I have nothing but contempt for [him].”
Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said nothing has changed in how he views Snowden; he “had negative thoughts in the beginning, and I have negative thoughts today.”
Even the Senate’s sponsor and co-sponsor of a bill that would end the telephone metadata program held a hard line on Snowden. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said flatly that he didn’t condone breaking the law, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., agreed, but urged the Senate to act on eliminating the program anyway.
“I think the House reflected what the American public wants,” Leahy said, referring to earlier this month when the House approved the companion bill, 338-88. “And I think we ought to do the same.”
Even those who note the complexity in determining Snowden’s legacy refer to the illegality of his actions and the potential effect on national security.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s second highest ranking Democrat, said it’s not a “simple calculation.” Durbin noted Snowden’s revelations led to a “serious assessment to some of our intelligence objectives,” but that the whole thing started with Snowden “violating his oath and endangering innocent people.”
Snowden actually did some senators a favor. In 2011, many senators voted against reauthorization of the Patriot Act due to what at the time was vague privacy concerns over certain programs. Of course, senators had to be vague because their concerns were about classified programs.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Patriot Act and the bill to replace it, voted with Durbin and Leahy against the reauthorization. While Snowden outed some of the programs that caused his concerns, Coons felt that afforded Snowden no clemency.
“He violated American law, and there have to be consequences for that,” said Coons. “But he also did contribute to the understanding of the proper balance between liberty and security.”
Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who voted in favor of reauthorization in 2011, was a cosponsor of the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act and a founder in February of the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus, which promotes strengthening protections for federal whistleblowers.
Federal protections for whistleblowers who are contractors are weak, acknowledged Grassley. Snowden has repeatedly noted that he was not covered by whistleblower protections when defending his actions. But Snowden ultimately broke protocol anyway, so Grassley held the line as well.
“Since he didn’t have the protection of whistleblower legislation, he violated the law,” Grassley said. “And there’s no way that I can say it’s OK to violate the law.”
And even Paul, a Kentucky Republican, who was on the floor attempting to filibuster an extension of the program, called Snowden’s actions “civil disobedience,” but didn’t call for amnesty for Snowden.
“I think there can be a mixture of opinions on, you know, what Snowden did,” Paul said on the floor. “I think that we have to have secrecy, and there have to be laws against revealing secrets. So I can’t say we should have everybody revealing secrets. At the same time, I think the law says that those who are reporting to Congress should tell the truth.
“So we have the intelligence director lying to us and saying the program doesn’t exist, and then we have someone committing civil disobedience. When you commit civil disobedience, it isn’t that we change the law and say it’s OK. What we do is say, you broke the law and maybe you did it for a higher purpose, but it doesn’t mean we’ll get rid of all punishment for this.”
Paul suggested that whistleblower protections for federal employees should be extended for contractors like Snowden, who seems destined to remain in exile.
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