Clemency for Edward Snowden and Philip Agee?

January 9, 2014

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

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

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

15 thoughts on “Clemency for Edward Snowden and Philip Agee?

  1. The press and foreign governments are not equivalent. That’s where your analogy breaks down. Everything after that is therefore nonsense.

    I’m not entirely on board the “free Snowden” train, but neither do I think the draconian level of punishment he would undoubtedly face if he were so foolish as to heed the demands that he simply give himself up is at all appropriate.

  2. Jan: If I understand your comment, I’m not sure I agree. When I was an intelligence officer it didn’t matter a whole lot (sometimes, but seldom and mostly at the margins) whether I got information about my target from the foreign press or from a spy.

    MHipple: Art is its own reward!

    John: Thanks! Allow me to predict that it will be PONTIUS. ;-)

  3. Perhaps the parallel you should be thinking about is the matter of COINTELPRO – or do you have a handy revisionist history for that in your repetoire?

  4. COINTELPRO would most decidely not be a reasonable analogy for Snowden. It is plausibly an analogy for NSA operations–not the topic of my piece. Even there, however, I’m not struck by any great similarity. COINTELPRO was, in essence, covert action, efforts designed to produce an effect in the world. NSA’s efforts were intended to never be noticed or have a visible effect, merely to be observational.

    That said, I’d be interested in hearing why you think COINTELPRO is a good historical anaology.

  5. Sure, open source research is an important part of intelligence analysis. I don’t dispute that. But we’re going down a dangerously slippery slope if we start equating the press with hostile foreign governments or non-state enemies. I’d posit a corollary to the old saying that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others: an adversarial press that successfully pierces the veil of secrecy is the worst form of check on government abuse aside from all the others.

    Allegedly, Mr. Snowden got away with 1.7 million highly classified documents (I’m suspicious of that number – I bet it’s not the hard number it’s being portrayed as but rather an upper bound – but let’s use that number for the sake of argument.) Surely you’ll agree that the relatively tiny fraction of that number which have appeared in the press is of far less benefit to an adversary than having the entire trove of documents in their hands would be?

    And in most cases, the press really will give serious consideration to particularized claims of harm if certain information is published. You doubtless don’t think they give the government sufficient deference in that department, but it is nevertheless a real distinction from an enemy.

  6. Jan:

    Now that I see what you are getting at, I do agree.

    I’d only caveat in a couple ways.

    First, when the stolen documents go to the foreign press (as they almost exclusively have in this case: UK, France, Brazil, Mexico, Sweden), we should not be surprised if the foreign press applies a different and much more liberal standard in protecting what the US would view as legitimate security equities.

    Second, the more people who have access to these secrets, the more points of leakage (through espionage recruitment, technical penetration, or strong-arm tactics) there can be. For instance, journalists are classic targets of recruitment by foreign intelligence services. Or, totally hypothetically, the Guardian could be purer than the driven snow in intending to protect almost all of the stolen materials, but if (for instance) their IT guy or Glenn Greenwald’s secretary has been recruited by the SVR, then the game is up. Note I am NOT alleging in any way shape or form that that has happened. I’m merely saying that as a probabilistic statement the more surface area secrets have, the more likely that there will be a leak somewhere.

  7. I’ll agree with those caveats, although it’s hard to see how the first is avoidable in this age of international corporations.

    I definitely share the second concern, especially since in this case, Greenwald has admitted to being completely ignorant of data security practices at the start of this venture. Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman seem to have been somewhat knowledgeable from the start and the addition of Bruce Schneier to Greenwald’s team is a major boost, but it’s hard to be completely confident the cat wasn’t already out of the bag by the time all this learning took place.

  8. Ah, but COINTELPRO is exactly relevant to the NSA snooping – it is fundamentally at odds with the nature of power granted to the federal government by the Constitution and constrained by the 1st and 4th amendments.

    That a search is unobtrusive does not change that it is still a search. Warrants are to be specific and limited, not general. FISC was a response in part to COINTELPRO – it was the wrong response because it attempted to patch something that was fundamentally wrong. Snowden was as “wrong” as the COINTELPRO burglars in exposing the vastly greater wrong being done by the government. Maybe you are as nonplussed as Hoover (and Clapper and Alexander) that the government wishes to operate without limits. I find that an ironic stance for people who have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution.

    1. I do agree, Juris, that the Supreme Court should weigh in on the constitutionality of this, but the fact remains, as Mark has pointed out, that the NSA was authorized to do exactly what they have done under laws passed by the United States Congress and signed by the President of the United States. If the Supreme Court is to strike these laws down at some point in the future, the culprit is Congress, not the NSA, and the system will have worked exactly as it should.

      1. I disagree about the NSA not exceeding what the law authorized. The Bush Administration executed acts for which they later sought legal authority. The primary author of the Patriot Act has stated that this was not in the scope as intended and the FISC was repeatedly lied to – as was Congress. That does not speak legitimate use of authorized power to me. If an NSL is not a warrant then no one should have any reason to pay any attention to it whatsoever – absent of course illegal coercive threats from those representing the govt. And the notion that any part of our corpus of jurisprudence can be CLASSIFIED is scandalous beyond comprehension. If Shakespeare was right, the lawyers that promulgated that theory should be the very first ones against the wall.

        I have little faith in the Supreme Court which has rarely had the courage to do the job assigned to it by the Constitution.

    2. And lets also keep in mind that the scope of programs revealed by Snowden far exceed those programs that you identify as violating privacy protections for Americans.

  9. I’m merely saying that as a probabilistic statement the more surface area secrets have, the more likely that there will be a leak somewhere.

    Think of a balloon – the more you fill it the greater its surface area becomes. That is part of the problem – the federal government routinely wishes to conceal policy and actions from public oversight via classification. Consequently the surface area subject to leakage expands. There should be a much more judicious use of classification. Today there are Dept of Labor jobs requiring security clearances… yes, Dept of Labor.

    All rather ironic for the most transparent Administration in history.

  10. I’d actually say give clemency to Snowden. Not because I agree with what he’s done, but because he has already won. Any attempt to go after him will just ensure that he’ll leak even more of what he has and cause even more damage. If clemency is what it takes to stop the leaks, then I think that’s something worth considering. Some will say that clemency for Snowden will just encourage other leakers to try the same thing, but I think the lesson here isn’t so much that we need to zealously prosecute leakers, but that the NSA did a lousy job at screening its employees. So, get the NSA to plug the leaks on its end, and offer Snowden some sort of clemency deal to stop further release of secrets…it’s better damage control and would be more productive than simply lashing out at Snowden, who isn’t going to come back to America to turn himself in regardless.