The letter emerged on the same day that the panel unanimously voted to adopt a classified report on Snowden that, according to a three-page unclassified summary, portrays him as a disgruntled employee whose leak caused “tremendous damage to national security.”
Snowden, 33, gave large numbers of sensitive files to journalists in 2013, an action he said he took out of concern that government surveillance programs were operating in violation of the U.S. Constitution. He said the public had a right to be informed of the programs so it could engage in debate about the proper scope of such surveillance.
On Wednesday, a coalition of human rights groups launched a campaign to urge Obama to pardon Snowden before he leaves office. Snowden was charged in June 2013 with espionage and felony theft of government property. And the letter came on the eve of the release of an Oliver Stone movie that portrays Snowden sympathetically.
Snowden is living in Russia under a grant of political asylum.
The intelligence panel rejected arguments that Snowden acted out of conscience and insisted that he should be held accountable for his actions. In their letter, the lawmakers reminded Obama that he had said in a news conference in 2013, “I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot.”
“In short,” they wrote, “we agree with you. Mr. Snowden is not a patriot. He is not a whistleblower. He is a criminal.”
The lawmakers faulted Snowden for leaking material rather than reporting his concerns about surveillance overreach to oversight officials, such as the committee or inspector general. They said he began his massive download two weeks after a spat with a supervisor.
The vast majority of the documents he leaked had nothing to do with programs that affected privacy and civil liberties, they said, but pertained to military and intelligence programs “of great interest to America’s enemies.”
They said that Snowden failed basic annual training for NSA employees on a key provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which included explanations of the privacy protections related to PRISM – another program whose details were revealed as a result of Snowden’s leaks.
Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represents Snowden, slammed the committee’s letter and report summary. “There’s no there there,” Wizner said.
“They’ve been using the same rhetoric about damage to national security for three and a half years and have produced absolutely no evidence of concrete harm,” he said. “If they had any evidence that any individual had come to harm, that would have been on the front pages of the newspapers.”
The first document to emerge from the leaks revealed a secret program of bulk collection of data on Americans’ phone calls. That program had been launched by President George W. Bush and retained by Obama. It had been operating with the approval of a federal court that oversees classified surveillance programs. And the intelligence committees, as well as some lawmakers on other committees, had been briefed on it.
“There is no oversight body that a whistleblower can go to when a program has been comprehensively approved by all three branches of government,” Wizner said. “The only avenue is to find a way to bring the public into the conversation, which [Snowden] did by releasing information to journalists.”
The committee asserted that Snowden “stole 1.5 million sensitive documents.” But senior intelligence officials have couched it as “probably downloaded,” cautioning that they do not know for sure how many he took.
The committee’s classified report is 36 pages, with 230 footnotes, but must remain secret “to avoid causing further harm to national security,” the summary stated.