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Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old defense contractor who leaked details on the National Security Agency’s phone and data surveillance programs, faces numerous calls from powerful members of Congress for his prosecution. But a few not-so-powerful members think he should go free — and more are calling for changes in the law.
“I’m not a lawyer, but based on what I know so far, I don’t think he should be prosecuted,” Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, a self-styled libertarian, told CQ Roll Call on Monday. “If someone reports illegal activity as a whistle-blower, they shouldn’t be prosecuted.
“Whether or not this program was authorized by Congress, it seems to me that this is an unconstitutional activity,” he continued, “which would make it illegal, and he should have some kind of immunity.”
Massie said the first step was seeing whether relevant amendments could be considered in relation to the National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal 2014, set for House floor consideration later this week. The next step, he said, could be through the introduction of formal legislation.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., was taking the lead on the initiative, Massie continued, and Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., was helping push an amendment that would specifically prohibit Americans to be detained indefinitely if they are suspected to be involved in supporting terrorist activities.
Massie said the amendment could be linked to the possible repercussions Snowden might face for disclosing classified information to the press.
But while a few lawmakers have expressed sympathy for Snowden, and many more jumped on his revelations to call for a rollback in the government’s powers, several leaders called for him to be prosecuted.
On Monday morning, New York Republican and former House Homeland Security Chairman Peter T. King, in an interview with CNN, called Snowden “dangerous” and “a defector” whom the U.S. “should prosecute ... to the fullest extent of the law.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., also weighed in that “if anyone were to violate the law by releasing classified information outside the legal avenues, certainly that individual should be prosecuted . . . at the full extent of the law,” in an interview on CBS.
Other lawmakers seemed inclined to believe that Snowden should be held accountable for his actions but spoke in softer rhetoric.
“If this individual, Mr. Snowden, broke our laws, then we need to go after him. We need to prosecute him, and I think that’s what most of the American people would expect,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said on MSNBC on Monday. “Whether or not they’re sympathetic with what he was doing or not, and I’m sure there will be some who are, I think that most Americans believe that we’re a nation of laws, we’ve got to enforce the laws.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, lamented that a whistle-blower law passed by Congress last year was stripped of a Senate section creating protections for intelligence-community whistle-blowers.
“This is exactly why we need a uniform whistle-blowing process for people who work in the intelligence community,” he said. “There must be in place a way for national security employees to address legitimate concerns without telling our enemies how the United States conducts intelligence operations.”
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Monday morning in an interview with Fox News, said Snowden does not deserve whistle-blower protections.
“If you are a whistle-blower, you don’t leave the United States. You don’t go to a communist country,” McCarthy said. “If you have grave concern ... then come before Congress. Being a whistle-blower is putting the information out, not running from the country.” Snowden is currently seeking asylum in Hong Kong.
But Massie took issue with that argument, accusing the intelligence panels on Capitol Hill of being tight-lipped.
“If [Snowden] had gone to the Intelligence Committee,” he said, “we would never know about this.”
Some, such as Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., are withholding judgment, saying on MSNBC on Monday that he was “not ready to declare [Snowden] a hero or a tyrant.”
The administration, meanwhile, seems much more likely to simply want to prosecute Snowden in court.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated that while the president believes that a debate over surveillance is “appropriate,” programs are “classified for a reason.” He declined to discuss Snowden specifically, noting that the Department of Justice is investigating.
The Guardian first reported early last week that the NSA was obtaining bulk phone records in order to parse metadata through computers. The Washington Post and The Guardian broke news on Thursday about a data-mining program called PRISM that supposedly taps into the databases of nine U.S. companies.
James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell over the weekend that whoever leaked the information “has chosen to violate a sacred trust. ... No matter what his or her motivation may have been, the damage that these revelations incur are huge.”