January 17, 2017
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama,
I am writing to you because a good government requires an active citizenry, and also because of the principle underlying how those who are neutral in injustice side with the oppressor. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said.
Though your days in the Presidential office may be few, there’s still the bully pulpit and plenty of executive authority for you to use. A lot of this letter focuses on ways you can lead on issues upon returning to life as a private citizen, and in doing that, I encourage you to join others in the strange but beneficial tradition of starting to telling the truth much more often after leaving office. Your approval ratings will be remembered as quite high, and because of that, how much you oppose the next administration will have an impact on what happens to the United States moving forward.
I have disapproved strongly of some of your actions during your presidency, such as aspects of the drone programs you administered that strike considerable fear into some foreign citizens, and your support for the ISDS in the TPP (which trade expert Lori Wallach and others affirm would allow foreign corporations the ability to acquire billions in taxpayer money after winning a case versus the U.S. government at a panel of three corporate attorneys). I recognize, however, that there is too much of the divide and rule tactics among the ruling classes going on. It is important to form alliances to accomplish objectives in making a better world, and you can be a powerful ally in this regard.
Post-presidency, you can use your influence to unite people in changing what is becoming largely a government of kleptocracy. Instead of having lots of meetings with the corporate world, you can instead have lots of gatherings with civic leaders all across the country. A reputation is something special, after all, a unique thing that no amount of money can substitute the feeling of. It’s the internal pride that there are others looking up to you, and doing the right thing despite colossal opposition.
It is clear that much of the executive overreach your administration has institutionalized from the previous Bush years will soon be used to impose a great form of repression. Some of the executive orders you issued were understandable in facing a Congress controlled to an extreme degree by big business interests. Still, absolute power corrupts absolutely; various powers — such as waging war, unlawful detention, and surveillance authorizations — will soon inevitably be used even more against the American people over the next few years. Of course, Congress has effectively delegated much of its power to the executive branch in recent years, and I did not write this letter primarily to criticize you, Mr. President. Though as someone who has served two terms, you remain one of the single most significant factors in what’s happened for close to a decade, both for bad and for good.
Many U.S. Presidents have not done much in the public interest after leaving office, but I hope you will be one of the exceptions. History tells of how even one of the better Presidents during the twentieth century, Lyndon B. Johnson, self-destructed shortly after his last term ended.
On Inauguration Day (January 20, 1969), Johnson saw Nixon sworn in, then got on the plane to fly back to Texas. When the front door of the plane closed, Johnson pulled out a cigarette–his first cigarette he had smoked since his heart attack in 1955. One of his daughters pulled it out of his mouth and said, “Daddy, what are you doing? You’re going to kill yourself.” He took it back and said, “I’ve now raised you girls. I’ve now been President. Now it’s my time!” From that point on, he went into a very self-destructive spiral.
—Historian Michael Beschloss
People such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have continually tried hard to work with you, in my view toning down their criticisms (if any) of your policies in the process. If you’re really a progressive, as you have said you are, you’ll work with people like them in a progressive movement once outside of office. It’s never too late for you to make a significant difference for the better, in an office of government power or not. The presidency of Jimmy Carter (who has also urged you to recognize Palestine as a state, and I agree with him that you should) has been rated by many historians as medium-low quality, but look at all the humanitarian work he’s done in the last several decades. Carter has arguably had the best post-presidency since the end of WWII, and isn’t that something you should strive to surpass, as one of his successors?
There are a lot of issues you can focus on, as there are a lot of problems (in the U.S. especially) that need addressed. If you want to make the noble efforts of redistricting and fixing voting problems a key priority outside of office, I have recommendations on what to consider.
The issue of gerrymandering is at the center of voting problems, since it effectively lets politicians pick their voters. In North Carolina, the lines are narrow enough that state representative Mickey Michaux once said: “If you drove down the interstate with both car doors open, you’d kill most of the people in the district.” Congress is one of the main ways for the public to mobilize in creating a government that functions more for them instead of the absurdly wealthy ones who have effectively bought off too many members of the legislative body. The Founders envisioned it as the most powerful branch, thus giving it more potential for democratic change than the other two branches. And I am sure you are aware how terribly the Republican Party has rigged Congressional seats after 2010. They’ve already done a lot to thwart the positive changes you wanted in office — how much more will they hold back progressive change if not stopped soon?
The force of law is among the best ways to ensure that power is used in the public interest. We need laws against gerrymandering so that this problem that has plagued America since the beginning can finally be overcome. If we fix the voting system, more people will be encouraged to turn out for elections, since they will be able to feel that their votes are more powerful, have more of an impact. It would go a long ways to making us able to more rightfully have the title of the land of the free, the home of the brave. As Marcus Cicero defined, freedom is the participation in power. And of course, the more people — notably young people today — who turn out for elections, the more vibrant the U.S. will become.
The Electoral College is an archaic system that I hope will drive you to indignant action in opposing. Were it not in place, a Republican would probably not be about to enter the White House and further shift the Supreme Court to a disastrous “conservative” agenda. The National Popular Vote bill is a way for us to reform the Electoral College without abolishing it. You can use your influence post-presidency to reform this dead hand from the past, using your talents at speaking to draw public attention to this reform and encourage states to agree to give their electoral votes to the ones who win the national popular vote. Stephen Silberstein and the people working with him are already up to 165 electoral votes, which is 61% of the amount needed for the interstate compact to come into legal force. With your help, they could get to 270 votes before the next presidential election. I don’t think I need to tell you that you’d be well-regarded by history for this and other actions, and it would go (with other reforms) a long ways in righting your mistakes in office.
“Two-thirds (273 of 399) of the general-election campaign events in the 2016 presidential race were in just 6 states. 94% of the 2016 events (375 of the 399) were in 12 states,” the National Popular Vote project’s website reports. How can there be much of a democracy when such a small number of states are receiving the vast majority of those arduous campaign expenditures? And electors have the power in many instances to cast their electoral votes against how their state has voted, and on balance this hasn’t been working out well lately. These conditions — along with the toxic influence of virtually no restrictions on money in politics from Citizens United — make the U.S. more of a constitutional oligarchy or plutocracy than a real democracy.
The superdelegate system in the Democratic Party’s primaries is also decidedly not democratic. There can be cases of unelected officials giving the key votes in deciding the party’s nominees. All the superdelegates come out too close to 20% of the amount needed to decide the Democratic Party’s nominee, and Pareto’s principle shows us that a value around 20% can indeed make a difference in an outcome. Bernie Sanders could have won the popular vote in the Democratic primaries but still never become the nominee with the superdelegates overwhelmingly set against him. In terms of the primaries, the system of closed primaries also needs to be done away with. It’s absurd that someone who chooses to identify as an Independent cannot vote, for example, for a Democrat. Sanders did well in lots of states with open primaries, and even perhaps if you would have preferred Hillary Clinton to him, a few processes like the primaries being different in the voting system would probably have put Sanders in the White House. I am sure that you would support that over the next Trump administration — which will be a disaster of fascist and autocratic abuses of authority.
For higher rates of voter turnout, there should be automatic voter registration at age 18, and maybe the U.S. shall consider doing what Australia has done and make voting mandatory, punishable by a small fee. There should also be more public financing of elections, along with reforming the private corporation known as the Committee on Presidential Debates, and also dropping the threshold for third parties to get on the televised debates from 15% to 5%. For actual voting itself, the country needs a secure and verifiable process. Audits of elections should be more of a norm than an exception. Electronic voting too frequently runs into problems that should have long been resolved, as documented for years by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and computer security experts. The paper trails used in some states already should be used in all of them. It’s also possible to make a “none of the above” voting option on ballots binding, which would be an interesting measure that would definitely drive more people to vote. If none of the above receives the most votes, a new election can be called in with different candidates. The shame of the politicians would be something else if they had to admit they lost an election to none of the above. And it is worth mentioning here that while the Constitution begins with We the People, not we the corporation,the country is increasingly controlled by them, down even to the electoral process, in what is becoming too much commercialization of all parts of life. Those artificial entities — who today have a dangerously increasing amount of corporate personhood — are not supposed to get votes. The process of voting is part of our critical infrastructure, and like many of our roads and bridges, it is in dire need of repair.
Another system that needs repaired is our prison system, to shift focus here to a different but also pressing issue. Allowing people to be locked up in the pursuit of profit at private prisons is sickening, and the conditions of the private prisons are horrendous, as discovered by investigations like the ones Mother Jones did last year. Someone is arrested approximately every 30 seconds for drug possession in the United States today. That contributes to the country having more people in prison than even the most repressive regimes in the world, and with that comes a lot of ruined lives. When people become felons for minor drug possessions, they often lose, for example, voting rights (which is unjustly depriving them of freedom even outside bars) and various opportunities, such as ones for employment. The nonviolent drug offenders — who make up half of federal prisoners — overwhelmingly deserve to be rehabilitated, not incarcerated and made to spend years of their lives in small cages.
The facts surrounding the prison system are staggering. The amount of people incarcerated for drug offenses has increased twelvefold since 1980. Eighty billion dollars a year come out taxpayer pockets in locking people up. African-Americans and Latinos do not make up 25% of the U.S. population, but are around 60% of the prisoners. Adult prisoners in private prisons have increased almost 1600% since 1990. And unfortunately, it is likely to get worse before it gets better.
How someone can go to prison for years just for stealing a slice of pizza under our so-called “three strikes” laws is a cruel injustice. This in light of how law enforcement also has been shown to discriminate against various people of color. Mandatory minimums, along with the War on Drugs, is not good policy, and should be done away with. This comes with the sort of two-tiered system of justice in America today, where the rich and powerful regularly are not held accountable for their crimes. The Founding Fathers wanted equality under the law to be a core American principle, even as they concluded correctly that a lot of other inequalities were inevitable. They would be disturbed at what has happened to this principle in the past several decades. The news media focuses too much on crime in the streets instead of crime in the suits, even with how corporate crime has a more significant impact overall than street crime does. Around 15,000 people die in the U.S. every year from street homicides, but way more than that die as a result of not having health insurance, because of air pollution or hospital malpractice. The seemingly silent violence of corrupt corporate power is truly one of the defining issues of our times.
I view extended solitary confinement as a violation of the eighth amendment and its protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The affects on people are clearly seen by how the suicide rate in solitary confinement is much higher than the rate for those held elsewhere in prisons. Half of all suicides in the juvenile justice system occur when a young person is held in “room confinement.” You have done well speaking out against solitary confinement before, and I hope you will continue to do so. Somewhere around 100 thousand people in the U.S. are in solitary confinement, many of them in horrible conditions for insignificant reasons. Some Rastafarian men in Virginia, for example, were placed in solitary confinement for over a decade just because they refused to cut their hair. Sixteen people in South Carolina were ordered to spend at least a decade in solitary for using social networks. There are plenty of other unrighteous situations like these ones, where the crimes do not at all justify the punishments.
For whatever it’s worth, Mr. President, I gave you some book recommendations (a few inspired by your article in Wired) at the end of the letter, and one of them is titled Hell is a Very Small Place, with its byline Voices from Solitary Confinement. It’s from the organization called Solitary Watch, and it features a quote by you as soon as the book is opened.
In the next few years though, a lot will be under attack, including crucial abortion rights for women and reasonable restrictions regarding gun control, of which you helped to contribute to. But always being on the defensive in the political realm is difficult, and along with battles to protect existing rights, there should be battles to regain lost rights. Citizens United (more aptly called corporations united) has been widely condemned because money is better defined as property, not speech, and because it effectively puts elections up for sale. And when elections are for sale, the absurdly rich will benefit disproportionately. You’ve said it before yourself: A society where the top 1% control the same wealth as the bottom 99% is not stable. It’s been the case for years now that about 330 thousand (the top 0.001%) people have as much wealth as about the bottom 330 million (the bottom 90%) in the U.S. Another recent report shows that 100 CEOs have the same retirement savings as 116 million Americans. This comes as yet another new report shows that just eight absurdly wealthy people control as much wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people combined. In terms of offensive measures, however, repealing Citizens United and the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, which works against unions (and therefore the uniting of people) are some of the movements that can be taken in the ongoing struggle for a better society.
Speaking of a better society, it is my view that the U.S. should try to be more of a humanitarian superpower than a militaristic one. Our military budget is at least bigger than the military budgets of the next seven countries combined, and is bigger than the next eight according to you. The fall of empires throughout history is a largely a result of them being unable to sustain their military spending, which causes them to collapse from the inside. Trillions have been spent on wars in the last few decades, money that would be much better spent investing in education (where it’s been found that every $1 invested yields as much $5 or more in terms of value) or in healthcare, to improve the public’s quality of life. The bloated and wasteful military budget is an issue that both sides of the political spectrum can come together on. Billions of dollars were recently reported to have been wasted from the Pentagon, which has been violating federal law since 1992 by not having an audit of itself. You opposed the Iraq War once, and despite how long you were at war as President, I hope you will help lead efforts to oppose costly and needlessly dangerous wars in the future. The perpetual state of military conflict, as you have spoken about before, is not the right path forward for the world.
So as to not need to reiterate myself more in further paragraphs, I will say that the issues I mention in this letter and other ones are areas you can lead in post-presidency. “The best way to predict your future is to create it,” as Abraham Lincoln said.
In 2007, a homeless man named Roy Brown went to a bank and, with no visible weapon, demanded the teller give him some money. The teller handed him multiple stacks of bills, but the man took only $100, explaining that he was hungry with no place to stay. He turned himself in to the police the next day, saying that he’d been raised better. He was then sentenced to fifteen years in prison for this. We might argue about whether prosecuting as many (just one by my count) Wall Street executives as your administration did was the right thing to do, but these sorts of disparities present in the financial realm are disconcerting.
So yet another area of concern is financial deregulation, which was one of the factors that caused the financial crisis a few years ago that lead to trillions of dollars worth of damage among the economies of the world. Having inherited an economy from the Bush years, and deserving credit for how stable the economy has been under your administration, all things considered, you’ll have a lot of influence in opposing more financial deregulation. Derivatives are still financial instruments of destruction and the Glass-Steagall provisions still need to be emphasized as vital. The banks are too big, too powerful, and that’s having an unhealthy effect in a lot of ways. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a 1933 letter, wrote that: “The real truth of the matter is, as you and I know, that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson–and I am not wholly excepting the Administration of W. W. The country is going through a repetition of Jackson’s fight with the Bank of the United States–only on a far bigger and broader basis.” His words ring more true than ever today.
In rebuilding a new progressive movement and/or Democratic Party, the insights of FDR should be considered more. He spoke of fascism as when government is controlled by private economic interests in the 1930s, and he spoke of how freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear are the fundamental freedoms. Along with his Second Bill of Rights, these prescient insights are too often overlooked today, and among other things should be emphasized more.
It looks like net neutrality will also be under attack in the coming years. Net neutrality provides a path to establishing more egalitarian principles, such as providing Internet access for more people. A lot of people are mislead because they do not have access information that’s true and informative. This has an effect, then, on all other parts of society. The effects regarding the lack of Internet access for certain rural people should not be understated.
There’s a lot wrong with the pharmaceutical industry and prescription drugs, and the solutions are among the most core necessary reforms needed. The government could save up to $16 billion annually by being able to negotiate Medicare drug prices. The middle class and poor spend way too much on what should be affordable drugs, and it takes away from their quality of life and discretionary spending. It’s part of what contributes to the underrated problem of child poverty — where scientists have discovered that permanent brain damage will go on to plague many of those children (and therefore the future).
A long fight ahead will be for healthcare, and I encourage you to support a single-payer system like what Canada has. Healthcare in Canada is close to half the cost per capita of what it is in the U.S., and they guarantee it to all their citizens. It’s definitely past time the U.S. joined every major developed country in the world in giving all their citizens universal healthcare. The U.S. is the richest country in the history of the world, where making giant corporations pay their fair share of taxes while getting them off corporate welfare, and establishing a Wall Street speculation tax, could be used to generate even more revenue for healthcare costs, along with other endeavors. The Affordable Care Act is an achievement in how it has given coverage to millions of struggling Americans, but it has also been too good for the insurance companies. The ability for the insurance companies to make a profit on even the basic healthcare packages is part of why the U.S. has such high healthcare costs relative to other nations. There is also the widely unnoticed medical billing fraud, which applied mathematician at Harvard and expert on computerized billing fraud Malcolm Sparrow has said adds up to at least $270 billion per year. That’s around ten percent of all healthcare expenses, which is an absolute absurdity. In sum here with healthcare though, there should be a universally-available public option, with more attention drawn to the crucial and overlooked facts.
The rapid deterioration of civil liberties in the next few years will likely be some sort of record. One of the areas that will be quickly hit is in the area of technology, with advocation for backdoors. Backdoors, as virtually all cryptographers agree, are a policy of anti-security, since it is impossible to make a secure backdoor that only one party (e.g., the government) is privy to access to. Warrantless government surveillance will soon increase, the chilling effect coming with it. A deportation force will soon likely be started by the next administration, wasting billions of dollars while breaking up families and also collaborating poisonously with the private prison industry. Obviously, people will need to organize against such a repressive agenda, since civil liberties are core values that other rights are connected to.
Nuclear weapons are one of the greatest threats facing humanity today, and the critical mismanagement of them is akin to massive death and anguish. I am asking you to support legislation such as the Nuclear Sanity Act, which would make it more difficult for a brutal and dangerous authoritarian occupying the presidential office to launch nuclear weapons. I would also like to ask you to speak out against fission nuclear power plants, which are accompanied by awful policy like the Price-Anderson Act and present grave risks for many millions of people. There are more efficient ways to generate electricity that do not put entire states at risk of immense disaster, with there being no truly safe way to deal with the byproducts like spent nuclear fuel. It is also, of course, a nonrenewable resource because of the finite supply of the necessary uranium. The downsides to fission nuclear power plants therefore strongly outweigh the benefits. For as much as I see politicians talk about justifying extrajudicial and ineffective measures in the name of terrorism, I have either never or rarely heard one use the threat of terrorism to advocate for the shutdown of all nuclear power plants in the U.S. This is despite what is, again, the disastrous potential impacts resulting from a nuclear power plant catastrophe, as seen years ago in Fukushima, and how the American people are as likely (or more likely, as also has been reported) to be killed by their own furniture as a terrorist attack. I have heard you talk about how wind power is already cheaper in Texas than fossil fuels, so I know you understand the potential impacts of renewable energy.
I am now requesting that you use your executive power to give some form of clemency to the whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. These are both people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the value of truth and for the public interest. It was good to see that Ms. Manning was on your short list for commutation a few days ago, but having said that, if you do nothing towards granting her clemency, it will let a lot of people down. I hope that you will not end the Presidency that began on notes of Hope and Change in such a way.
Both of them were charged under the draconian and unconstitutional Espionage Act, so let us begin by addressing that. As you know, it does not permit a public interest defense. Why would you let this happen? What happened to the liberal law professor deeply engaged with his community? You know, I have heard young people of color say, “If a white person cannot even get a fair trial for doing the right thing, there’s not much chance for me.” And I have to warn you about how your legacy will be damaged by not granting clemency to these whistleblowers. A surprisingly high number of people will hold you in lower esteem just for this particular issue, because it’s not only within your power to pardon Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, it’s the right thing to do.
Both whistleblowers broke the law, but they also exposed massive criminality, and that comes with how the law is not always just. Chelsea Manning was detained without trial for over 1000 days, which is an infringement on her Sixth Amendment rights. She’s been refused appropriate medical care for gender dysphoria. She’s already spent more time in prison than anyone else in the U.S. for leaking information. The UN rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, found that she had been treated cruelly, in a way that he claimed possibly constituted torture. Over 250 law professors said her treatment did amount to torture. After her suicide attempt months ago, she was given even more solitary confinement to suffer with. Her original combined maximum sentence was over a hundred years in prison. With all this considered, the question is whether you are willing to leave office with this disturbing deterrent against dissent, Mr. President.
Taking such a harsh stance against whistleblowers will severely detract from your claims of having the most transparent administration in history, your welcome updates to the FOIA or not. In my view, for the immediate future especially, the repeated use of the Espionage Act sets a very dangerous precedent for future administrations — a much more concerning precedent than opening up libel laws. The general counsel for the New York Times during its fights with the Nixon Administration, James Goodale, wrote in 2013 that “President Obama will surely pass President Richard Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom.” You still have a chance to do something about that though.
One of the main criticisms of the publications that Manning lead to through Wikileaks years ago was that they endangered lives. But Brigadier general Robert Carr, a senior intelligence official who investigated the impacts of Wikileaks disclosures for the Defense Department, admitted to a court in Maryland that “I don’t have a specific example.”
The Wikileaks that Manning worked with was different many years ago. It used to work with other media organizations, and it was actually willing to curate. Julian Assange recently said that he would leave the Ecuadorian embassy for the U.S. if you granted her clemency, which is in a way mocking you, Mr. President. She’s an inspiration to other LGBT people, and she has suffered more than enough. My sincere thoughts are that she will not survive more than a decade in prison, and her suicide would cause immense grief.
Chelsea Manning is only requesting time served, and it would be just to give her that form of clemency at least. Although, if I was President, I would give her a full pardon, and I suspect that someone like Martin Luther King Jr. would too. The Iraq War Logs that she leaked have already been cited often by scholars, and they will continue to be for generations. The light that she was able to help shine on the Iraq War reveals the tragedies and corruption that such an act of military aggression brings. It will provide more evidence that the public needs to oppose such senseless and expensive wars, and as we have seen, public opposition can make all the difference. Abraham Lincoln is known to have said “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed,” after all.
The NSA whistleblower known as Ed Snowden recently tweeted that “Mr. President, if you grant only one act of clemency as you exit the White House, please: free Chelsea Manning. You alone can save her life.” He’s not even asking for his own pardon, in what I view as selflessness.
I don’t think I need to convince you that Snowden has never been a Russian or Chinese spy. Even certain top intelligence officials who hate him do not subscribe to that hypothesis. I am not sure what you really think about him and his actions, but I will try to show you what I perceive as the truth, and why I think he should receive a pardon.
You may notice that much of this letter is about the issues, and that is how I intended it. It is important, then, to refute the claims that Snowden is a “narcissist.” Not only is this an ad hominem, it is untrue. If Snowden was really a narcissist, he wouldn’t have been able to resist being in the spotlight after he gave documents to journalists. Instead, after admitting that he was the one behind the mass surveillance disclosures, he largely stayed out of the picture for a long time, when he could have been giving interviews day and night. He knew that the U.S. mass media would look to personalize the story in seeking profits, and he also knew how he would be attacked as the messenger. Only later on did he emerge to participate in the debate he had helped launch.
You know who attacks Snowden’s character by calling him a narcissist? The person I have a feeling you may have become good friends with, Mr. James Clapper, also known as the man who committed a felony of perjury but was never indicted for it. The only time I saw him using an expletive in the entire long interview he conducted with Wired months ago was when discussing Snowden. What comes to mind for me based on that is a quote by Abraham Lincoln: “You can tell the greatness of a man by what makes him angry.” I do not view Mr. Clapper as a great man for his actions overall as Director of National Intelligence. It is my view, respectfully, Mr. President, that he and some others have lead (or seemed to have lead) you to have certain incorrect views.
Mr. Clapper does not present evidence in the Wired article after saying that the disclosures resulting from Snowden were “profoundly damaging.” This is exactly one of the reasons Snowden decided to become a whistleblower in the first place — lack of transparency. Former ACLU principal technologist and surveillance expert Christopher Soghoian addressed this subject of transparency by saying “To the casual observer it might seem like the DNI’s being more transparent. What I think is that the DNI’s office has embraced transparency theater.”
There was going to be a whistleblower like Snowden eventually, and they probably wouldn’t have been as responsible as he was. He published zero documents himself, giving them to the press to publish instead. Most of the documents have not been seen by the public years later, and with Snowden’s wishes in how the process is carried out, where the government is prompted to make their own argument, it is slow going. He has been willing from the beginning to return to the U.S., as long as he was able to get a fair trial, which he has not been able to do. Eric Holder himself said that Snowden had performed a “public service,” and the recent support you’ve gotten in over a million signatures presented by the top human rights groups is incredible. If this debate over privacy and security will make us stronger, Mr. President, why not allow Snowden to come back, so that the country may have an even more enhanced debate?
There are people such as the widely respected journalist known as Barton Gellman who say that while what Snowden did was more positive than negative, he did still do damage. It’s not like saying this makes someone’s argument invalid — the important part is to emphasize that, on balance, the disclosures resulting from Snowden have done significantly more good than harm. I emphasize this part so that you do not dismiss my claims as being “absolutionist.”
Daniel Ellsberg has said himself that Snowden could not have done what he did in staying in the U.S., and Ellsberg has also urged you to pardon both Snowden and Manning. The whistleblower protections for national security contractors are too weak, and this comes in spite of how approximately 70 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget goes to private contractors. This is another part of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about.
While Snowden did take documents that were about targeted surveillance, there was a reason for this. I think that he wanted the American people to see what the NSA was doing not only in their illegal domestic mass surveillance, but to look some at how they were using their taxpayer-funded targeted surveillance powers. The intention was for the public to have information to review the NSA in a way that would allow them to decide whether they approved. In his own words, Snowden said “I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous.” The parent agency of the NSA is the Department of Defense, and Snowden was rightfully worried about military cyber attacks on civilian infrastructure in light of how, say, military bombing of civilian infrastructure is a war crime under international law.
Offensive computer security is so overwhelming against defensive computer right now and in years past that I would argue it isn’t a grand significance that people know a little about how the NSA targets. That agency and other nation states are powerful enough to break into the vast majority of what they want. Knowing how they target is also really a light form of punishment, considering all the agency has done, from violating the Fourth Amendment rights of millions or engaging in economic espionage. And a lot of the policies in general around this matter need to be reconsidered. Mass surveillance is ineffective; it has no record of stopping large terrorist attacks in the U.S. Shortly after the first mass surveillance leaks, you said that the NSA “averted … at least 50 threats,” which was mostly later debunked. The arguments that Snowden has caused lots of damage have therefore been used before, but in my view, they will not hold up to history.
A new poll from The Economist finds that 40% of those under age 30 support a pardon, while only 16% of those under age 30 support prosecution. Those people are the future, and that means they represent how your legacy will be viewed. Ed Snowden gains more support every year, and this trend will continue. Years in the future, after nonsense controversies die down, he will be regarded as a patriotic whistleblower.
Because Snowden came forward, various companies have improved their security and privacy standards, and more people have taken digital civil liberties more seriously. The adoption of encryption that helps keep people safe (e.g., the strong growth of HTTPS, which can help protect people from malware) has increased. There were the first major reforms of government surveillance law in decades. A light was shined into the darkness, and an important debate was sparked.
Our government was not meant to operate with vast powers that the public were not aware the government was using. The Founding Fathers intended a government of enumerated powers, where there were limits, checks and balances, and accountability. The Constitution has been the Supreme Law of the Land since the beginning, and if government officials want to violate it on such a scale in doing warrantless mass surveillance, the public should have an informed debate to decide whether they approve. That’s what consent of the governed is supposed to be more like. That’s what a democracy is supposed to be more like.
And many of Snowden’s insights have been prescient. He spoke of “turnkey tyranny” when he came forward in 2013 as a 29 year-old young man. Just a few years leader, an autocratic and fascist leader would be elected President. Many people were comfortable with your judgment, Mr. President, but there’s no guarantee that will transfer over to future generations. The last few days still provide you an opportunity to do amazing things, ones that will boost your legacy and give you a clearer conscience.
I am ending this letter by noting that the issue of climate change is arguably the highest threat to national security. Any short term benefits of burning fossil fuels are vastly outweighed by the impacts such actions will have on the future economy and environment. This should be emphasized over and over so it is widely known. The protections you gave to the Atlantic and Arctic from drilling, along with positive benefits of your healthcare initiatives, and the Iran deal, will go down in history as some of your best achievements. I thank you for that, for those who are suffering too much today and in the future.
A list of book recommendations is below. There are more of them I could send if you write back.
Hell is a Very Small Place
The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies
The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth
Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer by Dean Baker
All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power by Nomi Prins
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein
Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive by Bruce Schneier
Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier than We Think by Ralph Nader
Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders
I would lastly warn you about missing the justice movement. It has happened to too many lawyers throughout history, and they look back in shame at what they’ve done with their lives. We only live once, so let’s make it count. I will be watching to see what happens in time.
A Concerned Citizen