By Eric Brakey
Eight years in exile, Edward Snowden dreams of returning home.
Only twenty-nine when he saw his country for the last time, Snowden set out—like Paul Revere ten generations before him—on an uncertain journey to warn his countrymen of an unseen threat. Guilty of obeying his oath to the Constitution, he is pursued by those who have broken theirs. To this day, the ongoing prosecution of Snowden endangers more than the fate of one whistleblower, representing a clear break from the constitutional government of America’s founding into the dystopian superstate it has become.
Since the signing of Jefferson’s declaration, our “Shining City on a Hill” was upheld as a unique force for liberty in a world dominated by tyrants. With the Cold War’s end, however, there were no more evil empires to vanquish. To perpetuate the military-industrial complex, Washington and the corporate press sold our still-idealistic nation on a new cast of villians—featuring tin-pot dictators and disgruntled farmers halfway across the world—in a never-ending “War on Terror” that promised to “spread freedom and democracy.” Buyers’ remorse hit hard.
Whistleblowers chipped away at the sales pitch, revealing the drone bombing of civilians, unapologetic torture of prisoners, and lies used to justify foreign occupations. Through propaganda and doublethink, many Americans maintained patriotic ideals while supporting a government routinely undermining them. But every day, a creeping realization settled into the American mind: Our government has betrayed us.
Seeking to serve his country in the post 9/11 world, Snowden went from the army to the intelligence community. A talented programmer modernizing NSA data systems, Snowden reflects in “Permanent Record,” his 2019 memoir, “There’s always a danger in letting even the most qualified person rise too far, too fast, before they’ve had enough time to get cynical and abandon their idealism.”
Snowden would go on to reveal to the world that U.S. spy agencies were gathering “intelligence,” not only on “foreign terrorists,” but also on every single American in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Through bulk data collection—tracking who you talk to, what websites you visit, and your GPS location at all times—the NSA was building a permanent record for every citizen. Going forward, federal agents would have the power to look backward into the digital footprints of anyone who became problematic to those in power, piecing together digital evidence and constructing a crime to prosecute.
With a single stroke, Snowden warned America that Big Brother is watching and exposed the crimes of the surveillance state for the world to see. Those who committed these crimes, however, have never faced accountability.
Under direct questioning from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in 2013, President Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, committed perjury by denying the existence of these programs. For lying to Congress, SWAT teams conducted a pre-dawn raid with CNN cameras rolling—not at the home of Clapper, but years later at the home of Trump-advisor Roger Stone. Clapper was instead rewarded with a cushy job on CNN.
A federal court officially ruled these programs illegal in 2015, but the only person to face prosecution is the whistleblower who revealed them. Once exposed, Obama feigned appreciation for the opportunity to have a “national conversation” on domestic surveillance. Meanwhile, his administration charged Snowden under the Espionage Act and conducted a worldwide manhunt—led by then-Vice President Joe Biden—ending with Snowden stranded in Russia with a canceled passport.
To this day, any return home for Snowden would mean a show trial in a secret court, facing up to ten years in prison for every single classified document. “The exposure that he faces is virtually unlimited…” says Ben Wizner, a Snowden legal advisor. Even so, Snowden has pledged to return home if guaranteed a fair and public trial.
In the years since, America has grown cynical. Washington’s intelligence agencies have ignored calls for reform and grown more emboldened, spying on elected officials and running politicized investigations that never prove their claims, but cast shadows over American elections. Today, national politics are the tribal power games of a fractured nation.
Snowden still dreams of returning home. Should that day ever come, will he be received with handcuffs or a hero’s welcome? For the sake of America, I hope enough of that rebellious spirit of liberty remains to greet him with open arms.
Eric Brakey is the senior spokesperson for Young Americans for Liberty and served two terms in the Maine state senate (2014-2018).