According to a statement by SFL President and Cofounder Alexander McCobin, the organization has decided to honor Snowden for “initiating a global conversation on the balance of power between governments and peoples that has led to and continues to bring about meaningful reforms to intrusive, abusive, and unjust government surveillance programs.”
McCobin notes that although Snowden is not an SFL alumni and finished his studies prior to the group’s founding, he receives the award because his “commitment to liberty has had a resounding impact upon the world and can serve as an inspiration for others.”
In 2013, Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) systems administrator and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) counterintelligence trainer, revealed classified NSA documents that detailed massive surveillance programs run by the United States and United Kingdom, in violation of civil liberties in those countries.
“We are really excited to be able to recognize the courage, sacrifice, and momentum made by an individual in his fight against the state’s attempts to violate the privacy of its citizens,” Asdrúbal Vargas, member of SFL’s International Executive Board, told the PanAm Post.
Vargas says the award allows SFL to raise awareness of the importance of not being an accomplice to the government’s aggressions. “We must exercise our right to civil disobedience against the perversion of the law and its institutions,” he said, paraphrasing Henry David Thoreau. “Snowden has shown us that being on the side of what is right resides in the will of the individual.”
The Value of Civil Disobedience
Snowden has faced a wave of criticism and legal challenges, but according to McCobin, his actions are a form civil disobedience that deserve to be celebrated. “Civil disobedience is not merely something that we ought to accept as a necessary check on the abuses of government, it is one that ought to be revered and admired when used to hold one’s government accountable for its unjust and even illegal activities,” he said.
“The second line of criticism will be for the potentially damaging consequences to the safety, security, and basic liberties of [US] Americans suffered as a result of Snowden’s actions,” McCobin continued in his statement. “And yet, a year and a half has gone by since the first documents were revealed to the public. It seems evident that no legitimately sensitive national security information was released to any [third] parties.”
As for the justification for giving Snowden the award, McCobin said it is simply “the right thing to do.”
Controversy and Patriotism
Critics of the NSA’s domestic surveillance, including US District Court Judge Richard Leon, have described the programs Snowden has revealed as “unconstitutional” and “Orwellian.” Snowden, who Wired magazine calls the “most wanted man in the world,” believes his actions should be considered patriotic.
“All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed. That is a milestone we left a long time ago. Right now, all we are looking at are stretch goals,” Snowden said in an interview with the Washington Post in December 2013.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has been one of Snowden’s fiercest critics, calling him a coward and traitor, and demanding Snowden leave Russia and return to the United States to accept responsibility for his actions.
Russia, however, was not Snowden’s intended destination. He was in route to Latin America when his passport was revoked, leaving him trapped in a Moscow airport. When questioned about his choice of asylum country, he responds: “Please ask the [US] State Department.”
Since coming forward with classified US government documents, Snowden has responded to his critics on various occasions. “How can it be said that this harmed the country, when all three branches of government have made reforms as a result of it?” he said during an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams.
“Being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritizing service to government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the violations of, and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don’t have to be foreign countries.”
During this same interview, Snowden explained the US government had, in fact, trained him as a spy.
Due to the obvious limitations of his current situation, Snowden will not be able to receive the award in person at the Eighth Annual International Students For Liberty Conference, to be held on February 13-15 in Washington, DC.
Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.