Clemency for Edward Snowden and Philip Agee?

January 9, 2014

In the spirit of Jonathan Swift, I have a modest proposal.  Now that right-thinking people such as the New York Times, the Guardian and Esquire have agreed that Edward Snowden should receive clemency, I am obliged to agree.  I only humbly propose that Philip Agee should, nay must, receive comparable treatment.

Some readers may not remember Philip Agee, a former CIA case officer, who died in Cuba in 2008 at the age of 72.  There are remarkable similarities between him and Snowden that makes my argument a slam dunk case.

Both Snowden and Agee knew they were going to leave government service before they did it.

  • Snowden took his job with NSA with the intention of leaving after he acquired the information he wanted.
  • Agee did his final tour in Mexico City with the CIA already knowing that he wanted to leave.

Both divulged huge amounts of classified information that made its way to America’s enemies.

  • In 2013, Snowden took many thousands, possibly millions, of classified documents about NSA operations to the press, which immediately started publishing precise details about how secrets were being stolen from adversaries of the United States.  Snowden’s main journalistic outlet, Glenn Greenwald, has promised many more revelations and has signed a book deal.
  • In 1973, Agee, a former CIA case officer who had left the Agency in 1968 because of his Catholic conscience, (not at all because he drank too much, had trouble handling money and tended to proposition the wives of American diplomats with who he was serving), approached the KGB residency in Mexico City offering information.  The local KGB officers turned him away, much to the chagrin of KGB headquarters, but the Cuban service was happy to receive his information.  The result was three books (here, here and here) that named some 2,000 undercover CIA officers and their clandestine contacts.  (Or even as many as 4,000.)  He also launched the Covert Action Information Bulletin as a venue for releasing even more CIA secrets.  More books about the CIA followed over the years.

The villains and scoundrels in charge of the U.S. government—not to mention their stooges overseas—said that both Snowden and Agee did immense damage to the national security.

  • General Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA as well as of the CIA, has written that “Edward Snowden will likely prove to be the most costly leaker of American secrets in the history of the Republic.”  The head of Britain’s MI6 told the British Parliament that “Our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee.  Al Qaeda is lapping it up.”
  • In 1980, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported that it was “increasingly concerned about the systematic effort by a small group of Americans…to disclose the names of covert intelligence agents…Foremost among them has been Philip Agee….The destructive effect of these disclosures has been varied and wide ranging.”


Actually, however, both Snowden and Agee released their information in pursuit of a higher cause.

  • Snowden has said that he was appalled at the wanton violation of privacy of Americans and of foreigners and that this compelled him to speak out.  He has been quoted as saying, “I am still working for the NSA right now…. They are the only ones who don’t realize it.”
  • Agee was concerned about the plight of the working class in Latin America and believed that CIA opposition to Communists in Latin America allowed the continued oppression of the huddled masses there.  Indeed, the CIA’s purpose was “to corrupt politicians and to promote political repression.”  Agee’s high-minded principles can be seen in his explanation that the publication of name after name after name of undercover CIA case officers and in some cases their clandestine contacts was a political act in the “long and honorable tradition of dissidence in the United States” and definitely was not espionage.

Both Snowden and Agee were trying to save countless people from horrible mistreatment.

  • Snowden’s main ally, Glenn Greenwald, has said that NSA is “collecting millions upon million upon millions of our phone and email records. It is a globalized system designed to destroy all privacy.”
  • Philip Agee told Playboy in 1975 that “millions of people all over the world had been killed or at least had had their lives destroyed by the C.I.A. and the institutions it supports.”

Both Snowden and Agee received substantial support from governments hostile to the United States.

  • Snowden spent a few unacknowledged days at the Russian consulate in Hong Kong, has been welcomed for a year in Russia, and somebody in Russia got him a job with a tech firm.  And Anna Chapman proposed marriage to him.  (That last part is true, but she may not have meant it seriously.)
  • We actually now know from the Mitrokhin archives and the memoirs of former KGB General Oleg Kalugin and a Cuban defector that Agee was supported ($1 million plus visas and authorial assistance) along the way by the KGB and Fidel Castro’s Cuban intelligence service.  (Full disclosure: I know Kalugin and am on friendly terms with him.)

Both Snowden and Agee exhibited a tendency to live in countries that had tense relationships with the U.S., but which were impeccably democratic.

  • Snowden has been living in Russia and his next stop is likely to be somewhere like Ecuador, a beacon of democracy, political freedom and human rights.
  • Agee spent a good bit of his life living in nice places like Nicaragua under the Sandinistas and Grenada during the time of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop.  He spent the last years of his life in Castro’s Cuba.

There are other similarities:

  • Both Snowden and Agee were cruelly and unfairly stripped of their U.S. passports.
  • Both Snowden and Agee were popular in Europe broadly and with the Guardian.


The implication is clear.  President Obama should pardon Snowden for any crime that he may have committed and should apologize (albeit posthumously) to Agee for the bad things that the U.S. government said about him.  Both men should get their passports back post haste (again, unfortunately posthumously in the case of Philip Agee).

In the words of Jonathan Swift, “I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country.”

Okay.  Enough of that.  Obviously I do not believe that Snowden and Agee deserve clemency, pardons or anything else along those lines.  My point is simpler than that.  Historical analogies matter.  When we think about Edward Snowden, why do we reflexively think of American heroes like Daniel Ellsberg or Mark Felt or Jeffery Wigand?  Those cases aren’t exactly the same as Snowden’s.  Why do we not think about Philip Agee instead?  He’s at least as similar to Snowden as they are (probably more so), but with the benefit of hindsight he’s a rather problematic figure.  Our debate about how to handle Snowden and the situation he’s created would probably be much different if we saw him as a present-day Agee rather than a present-day Ellsberg.

Perhaps we should think critically about the historical analogies we apply and what the key similarities and differences are between those analogies and the present-day situation with which we are faced.  Perhaps we should also think about the implications of those similarities and differences.   This is one of the key lessons of Richard Neustadt and Ernest May’s classic book Thinking in Time.  We should heed their wisdom.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.


Photo credit: thierry ehrmann