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Life behind bars. 42 months in jail. 2 years probation and a $100k fine. What is the connection? Varying degrees to which those who are whistle-blowers in the United States are sentenced.

Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor, responsible for the largest leak of classified information in modern society – of top-secret NSA surveillance programmes – remains in Russia on temporary asylum, two years after the files were initially released. Some in the human rights and legal professions predict Snowden may be forced to remain in Russia indefinitely, unless the US Government changes their uncompromising stance on his actions.

Snowden’s motives have always been openly publicised from the start. He, in his own words, felt the need to release the sensitive materials discussing the over-reaching electronic spying programs of the National Security Agency (NSA) and also of the widespread cooperation of many countries around the world with the US intelligence community, because the act of unveiling the content and methods through which these secret programs were used to harvest electronic data around the world, was in the express interest of the previously unassuming public. One particular relationship that was flagged was that between the NSA and its German counterpart, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). Snowden deemed it our right to know the full extent of the reach and power of intelligence agencies in the Western sphere and for that we should be, wholly, fundamentally grateful. The consensus amongst the general public is more stilted however, with many still unable to fully decide whether Snowden is a hero or villain.

Some state, plainly, that his direct actions irrevocably damaged the standing of US clandestine operations through releasing the millions of files’ worth of top-secret material. Conversely, others argue that the furious and widespread debates concerning security and liberty – as well as the recent ruling by the US Court of Appeals that the NSA programs were indeed ‘unlawful’ – were all a direct result of the leaks.

The documentary Citizenfour, filmed by one of the journalists, Laura Poitras, who covered the build up to release of the Snowden files back in 2013, enabled the public to engage with the man himself, on a personal level. The film effectively humanises his actions, whilst giving an insight into the highly complex thought process of acquiring, selecting and releasing the top secret files to Poitras, Glen Greenwald and a handful of other respected journalists.

Yet, were Snowden to return to the US, he would immediately face a trial and possible long jail time – if not the death sentence – for his acts of treason and whistleblowing against the US Government. The track record of the US legal system to effectively prosecute becomes patchy in cases of penalising whistleblowers. Last month, the disgraced General David Petraeus – former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – was sentenced to 2 years probation and fined $100k. The courts ruled that, due to the fact the classified information he leaked to his biographer turned girlfriend, was never published, Petraeus should face a lesser sentence. Would this same clemency have been offered to Snowden, had he provided the files to Greenwald and Poitras but instructed them explicitly not to publish?

Another case; this week, a former CIA intelligence analyst, Jeffrey Sterling, was sentenced to 42 months in prison for passing classified information on Iran’s nuclear program to a New York Times journalist, James Risen. Risen initially refused to reveal his source to the court. Following a drawn out, but effectively failed intervention by the Justice Department ending in January 2015, the case was dropped against the journalist. Sterling, however was still dismissed by the CIA and, this week, was formally charged.

The sliding scale of jail sentences – proposed or current – begs the question; is the current method of prosecuting whistleblowers fundamentally fair? Or is it, alternatively, in need of radical reform? Of course, each case of espionage and whistleblowing is different, with varying scales of classification and volume of documents released, as well as the resultant perceived threats to national and global security.

The NSA also has a fruitful working relationship with the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), an intelligence agency – with a global remit – in charge of enhancing and protecting the UK’s interests abroad. The NSA/GCHQ relationship has led to high-quantity sharing of collected information across borders; one of the most ground-breaking being the NSA/GCHQ hacking of Gemalto between 2010-12. Gemalto is the world’s largest manufacturer of SIM-cards – the intelligence agencies targeted citizens at the very source of telecommunications, remaining undetected in Gemalto’s electronic infrastructure for 24 months, before staff raised suspicions of a breach.

Is Edward Snowden an on-going risk to national security by having aided the publication of previously unknown, but wide-reaching projects such as XKEYSCORE and Boundless Informant? More so than David Petreaus sharing similarly highly confidential information with a girlfriend of the time, for no overarching moral or ethical reason?

Whistleblowers typically risk their professional careers and lives to ensure that wrongdoings or potential crimes reach the public sphere. Such leaks often result in the sparking of intense debate and further public discourse, pushing society forward. Surely, as long as the whistleblowing process is done in a sensitive manner – unlike, perhaps, the way in which Julian Assange and Wikileaks broke the content of the Manning files to the world – then such whistleblowers should be indeed rewarded for righting a wrong in the system, instead of being ostracised from society and forced into hiding.

Late last night came the news that the US House of Representatives voted, in majority, to ban the NSA practice of storing – in bulk – of US phone records by 338-88. The House will now move to push for a reform of the NSA and the way in which it collects data on US citizens, but also those around the world.

Yes, you can’t have total security without giving up some civil liberties, but the way in which governments deal with whistleblowers is often a clear indicator of the way in which our society is being run. Maybe, just maybe, the tide is now beginning to turn.

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