Leading Writers Debate the Prospect of Clemency for NSA Leaker

NEW YORK—The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson and the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart weighed the prospect of clemency for Edward Snowden last night before an audience of writers, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, scholars, and even an official from the NYPD’s intelligence team at a debate hosted by PEN American Center and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.

Moderated by New York Times Assistant General Counsel and Vice President David McCraw, this live debate was inspired by a national conversation playing out in the media and Washington policy circles over the fate of the NSA contractor who leaked hoards of secret documents on U.S. government surveillance programs to journalists at the Washington Post and The Guardian.

“We wanted to give writers, as well as the public, an opportunity to weigh in on the direction our surveillance programs will ultimately take,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center. In a November 2013 report titled Chilling Effects, PEN documented the first tangible evidence that a plurality of writers had turned to self-censorship as a result of Snowden’s revelations on dragnet surveillance. “The issue of clemency for Snowden is one more facet of this debate in which writers and all those who are effected by government spying must have a voice.”

Davidson, who wrote a pair of essays in The New Yorker advocating amnesty for Snowden, pointed to a desirable information-for-clemency exchange that would allow the NSA to recoup some of the information Snowden provided to journalists—only 1% of which has been published, according to The Guardian—and get Snowden home safely. “Edward Snowden started a conversation that no one else could,” said Davidson. “One can imagine a plea deal that involves him reigning in some of the documents he released and helping the NSA learn some lessons. Bringing him home is in everybody’s interest.”

Accountability—“whatever that means”— was the word of the evening for Capehart, who argued that Snowden knowingly committed crime. “With all the people on the Hill that want to bury this president, there wasn’t anyone in Congress Snowden could go to with this information?” he asked. “It would add to the service he has done if Snowden would now come back, stand trial, and put the system on trial,” Capehart reasoned.

The audience remained largely divided on the issue with no clear solution emerging, though most agreed that Snowden should return to the United States, somehow. But one question, posed by McCraw, remained on everyone’s mind: “What will be the rules for the next ‘Snowden’?”

(Additional photos in high resolution available at flickr.com)


PEN American Center is an association of 3,500 American writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. Learn more at www.pen.org

CONTACT: Suzanne Nossel, snossel@pen.org, 212.334.1660 x 103