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Jeremiah Horrigan Headshot

A Whistleblower's Wish for Edward Snowden

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Whistleblower Edward Snowden shocked the world with his revelations of the NSA's worldwide surveillance programs. I hope he shocks it once again by returning to the United State to stand trial for the "crimes" he has essentially admitted committing.

My wish is offered respectfully. It's grounded in my experience as a would-be government whistleblower. On a hot August night in 1971, I was arrested along with four friends inside a federal office building in my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. while trying to destroy draft board records and steal U.S. Army Intelligence files.

An investigation by Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina the year before had found that Army Intelligence was spying on American citizens. We planned to steal and publicly release those files after we left the building that night.

We never got the chance. Instead, we were caught and arrested, charged with crimes that could have gotten us 12 years in federal prison.

I was 21 years old and brimming with anger at a war-crazed government. I was convinced stealing and ultimately publishing the Army's secret files would provide further evidence of the government's criminality.

Like Snowden, we were hailed as heroes and denounced as traitors. Unlike him, our attempt at non-violent civil disobedience had utterly failed in its original aims. We destroyed no draft files, purloined no intelligence files.

Snowden achieved his initial aim, spectacularly and at great personal risk. He has described his action in words I recognize as those of a frustrated idealist, words I might once have used myself. He told The Guardian his aim in leaking the NSA files was "to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

Snowden's progress since his action is well-known; his flight from his home in Hawaii to Hong Kong to a six week stay in a grubby-sounding airport lounge until finally being granted one year's asylum by the Russian government.

I haven't the slightest doubt Snowden's urge to flee was overwhelming. If I'd had the opportunity, I'd have done the same thing back when. The possibility of spending 30 years in prison would be daunting to anyone.

On the night I was arrested, I felt my world collapse around my ears. But what I discovered in the tumultuous aftermath of my arrest was the value of not only taking responsibility for what I'd done, but the value of being willing to take the consequences as well.

None of us wanted or expected to be arrested that night. But our arrest gave us the opportunity to speak about the life-and-death issues that had prompted our action. We acknowledged we'd committed crimes, but argued we'd done so in the name of preventing vastly more deadly ones.

Nine months after the action, we stood in federal court, where I knew the American justice system would finally silence and sentence us and lock us away as the criminals we so clearly were.

Those expectations were turned upside down when U. S. District Court Judge John T. Curtin allowed us to effectively put the war on trial. In addition to our own testimony, we presented other witnesses to the war's devastation: a Vietnamese woman whose village had been destroyed, a Marine veteran of the CIA's clandestine Operation Phoenix assassination program, a former FBI agent who testified about spying on anti-war nobodies like ourselves and people such as Martin Luther King.

In the end, the jury convicted us on two of the three counts against us, despite our repeated courtroom confessions.

Later, Judge Curtin stunned us again by suspending our sentences. We walked out of his courtroom that day and into the arms of our friends and loved ones.

Those memories have come into particular focus for me as I've followed Snowden's story, beginning with his decision to flee the country.

I'm 63 years old; the outrage and impatience of youth left me long ago. But I don't believe time's passage alone can explain why my admiration for Snowden is mixed with such pity and fear for him.

Is there a lonelier man on the planet? Cut off from family and friends, the temporary guest of that great champion of free speech, Vladimir Putin, Snowden seems a hapless and helpless pawn in a cold international game of diplomatic chess.

If Snowden has heroic qualities -- and I believe he does -- they most closely resemble the poignant qualities of a doomed John le Carre hero, a romantic who does the right and moral thing but winds up alone, the victim of relentless, deadly political forces over which he has no control.

There's no telling how his fate would have differed if Mr. Snowden had chosen to remain in the country and allowed himself to be arrested. But it's not too late for him -- and the world -- to find out. That world, in the shape of the two great countries that have made him a pawn in their game -- is certain to exact a political and personal price whenever it suits one or the other of them.

By returning home, Snowden would claim for himself the moral and political high ground denied him by his status as a man without a country. His willingness to do so would send a powerful message to the world: "I did what I had to do. I broke the law to prevent greater crimes from continuing. I did wrong in the name of what was right."

Let a jury hear a man speak from his conscience, let them recognize the risk he's taken to speak to them and let that jury compare his words and actions to a government that will insist he's nothing more than a common criminal.

I know this is asking a lot of a young man already burdened by pressures I can hardly fathom. I don't know how Snowden could have guessed -- as I was forced to discover -- that putting a human face on an illegal political act and having to face the consequences of that act can speak more directly to more people than the action itself. But I know it's true. And by returning home, I believe Edward Snowden won't have to share the sad, bitter fate suffered by all those le Carre heroes.