Reporter Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story about phone and internet surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) thanks to information provided by former contractor Edward Snowden, criticized the federal charges brought against him in a phone interview with MSNBC host Chris Hayes on Friday.
“I think it’s very surprising to accuse someone of espionage who hasn’t worked for a foreign government, who didn’t covertly pass information to an adversary [or] enemy of the United States, who didn’t sell any top secret information,” Greenwald told Hayes, arguing that Snowden “simply went to newspapers, asked newspapers to very carefully vet the information to make sure that the only thing being published are things that informed his fellow citizens but doesn’t harm national security. That is not espionage in any real sense of the word.”
The charges against Snowden, who provided Greenwald and his newspaper the Guardian with information on the agency’s monitoring of U.S. citizens through programs like PRISM and “Boundless Informant,” were made public on Friday.
The 29-year-old former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a Defense Department contractor, was charged on June 14 (PDF) with giving national defense information to someone without a security clearance and revealing classified information regarding “communications intelligence” — both charges covered by the Espionage Act of 1917 — as well as theft of government property. Each charge carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence if Snowden is convicted.
“This is a 1917 statute enacted under Woodrow Wilson to criminalize opposition to World War I,” Greenwald continued. “It has been used very, very sparingly throughout American history until the Obama administration, which has embraced it with extreme vigor as a means of punishing and prosecuting whistleblowers, and so in that regard, I think it’s unsurprising.”
While Hayes did not hesitate to call the Espionage Act “a pretty terrible piece of legislation,” he still pushed back against Greenwald’s argument.
“Doesn’t the government have to do something?” Hayes asked Greenwald. “Someone who worked for the government and inside the government skips out with 1,000 classified documents. This is a fairly big breach, even if you think — as I, quite frankly, do — the net benefit has been huge, it has precipitated a really needed debate.”
From a basic institutional standpoint, Hayes continued, Snowden had to face some sort of consequences for his self-avowed actions.
“I don’t think you’ll find very many people who argue that he should not be charged with any sort of criminal offense,” Greenwald responded. “I think when he did what he set out to do that he understood that it was in violation of the law. He felt like it was a noble act, justified under basic theories of civil disobedience, and that he expected to be charged with a crime.”
But the issue, Greenwald argued, was what he described as the “extreme zealousness” exhibited by the White House regarding whistleblowers, which reflected a “vindictive mentality” toward people who try to bring transparency to government policy.
“If this administration were equitable and consistent in trying to punish people who leak classified information, you could look at this act and say, ‘I think it’s excessive but at least it’s consistent,'” Greenwald continued, saying various administration officials were not prosecuted despite leaking top-secret or classified information that made the White House look good.
“What you have here is a misuse — a manipulation of these laws,” he told Hayes. “Not to protect classified information, but to punish people who leak in a way that embarasses high-level political officials, and that’s what makes it so pernicious.”
Watch Greenwald’s interview with Hayes, aired Friday on MSNBC, below.