Oliver Stone’s 2016 film Snowden debuted at the height of a controversy over whether or not President Obama should pardon Edward Snowden. His defenders argue that his disclosures prompted important legal and policy changes, while his opponents argue that he’s a criminal who should come back to the United States to stand trial.
The film itself paints a portrait of Snowden as a young conservative from a military background. He begins his career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with a loyalty to the United States and a desire to serve his country. As he transitions through different positions with private contractors in the intelligence community, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the breadth of government mass surveillance systems. What he witnesses at work haunts him – he develops an aversion to being photographed – and plagues his relationship with his girlfriend. Eventually, it leads him to flee to a hotel room in Hong Kong where he works in secret with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. They race against the clock to make his story public before the government can arrest him.
The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s easy to get lost in the controversy of Snowden’s disclosures, but it’s important to remember the context of his decision to go public. Snowden was familiar with the whistleblowers in the intelligence community who came before him. Despite making their own disclosures through designated channels within the government, these workers had no safeguards against the severe retaliation they faced.
Take the case of Ed Loomis, a former National Security Agency employee and contractor within the intelligence community. After he reported an ineffective and wasteful surveillance program through a designated government hotline, the government responded by revoking his Top Secret security clearance, rendering him unable to work in the intelligence community. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also raided his home for five hours. He and his wife watched as agents in Kevlar vests confiscated their possessions.
Contractors in the intelligence community deserve better than what happened to Ed Loomis. Public Citizen and many other organizations committed to open and transparent government support extending protections to contractors who blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse in the intelligence community. Without safeguards against employer retaliation, whistleblowers may either stay silent about government wrongdoing or make disclosures through the media.
Lawmakers recognize the urgent need for reform, but change has been slow. In 2015, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced a bill to extend whistleblower protections to contractors in the intelligence community. In theory, this bill should not be contentious. Certain intelligence community contractors had access to such protections for a limited time without any evidence of negative consequences to national security. But, lawmakers controversially revoked these rights in 2012. So far, Congress has failed to take action on Sen. McCaskill’s critical measure.
Snowden ends with familiar audio clips from the 2016 presidential primary debates where the candidates voiced their opinions about his actions. Their reactions are mixed, but frustratingly, there is no discussion of the much-needed whistleblower protection reforms like those in Sen. McCaskill’s bill.
The controversy over Snowden and his 2013 disclosures is unlikely to end anytime soon. However, if policymakers want to prevent future national security leaks, they should make whistleblowing safe for all intelligence community workers – including contractors. Congress should enact Sen. McCaskill’s bill to protect these individuals who bravely risk so much in serving the public good.