(update below) 

In the past twenty-four hours, there has been quite a bit of discussion about remarks from the White House and two members of Congress addressing whether or not former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden deserves clemency for releasing classified documents to journalists, who have written numerous stories exposing the true nature of the US surveillance state.

The questions apparently stemmed from something written in a letter to the German government in relation to possibly offering testimony to the government. Nowhere in the letter, however, does Snowden ask for clemency.

Greg Mitchell of The Nation was one of the first to begin to fully account for this perception being created by media that Snowden had entered a plea for clemency from the US government that was soon after rejected. “Did he even make this request?” Mitchell asked.

“Glenn Greenwald, his reporter friend who should know, declared otherwise on Twitter this morning: “The US media fabricated this ‘Snowden is pleading for clemency’ fairy tale—where did this happen? Where did he ‘plead for clemency’?” And: “All weekend, mindless TV news personalities asked: ‘Snowden is pleading for clemency—what’s your reaction?’ This never happened.”

Michael Masnick of Techdirt suggested the Associated Press was likely responsible. But AP could not be the outlet mostly responsible for popularizing this false perception because the story was not published until 3:30 am EST on November 4. All throughout the weekend this “plea” for “clemency” was popping up in news stories.

The outlet responsible appears to be The New York Times. Here is the tweet that went out in the afternoon on Friday, November 1:

The story states, “In his letter, Mr. Snowden, 30, also appealed for clemency. He said his disclosures about American intelligence activity at home and abroad, which he called ‘systematic violations of law by my government that created a moral duty to act,’ have had positive effects.”

This was picked up by other media outlets in the US, which apparently did not actually look at the letter to confirm if it was, in fact, an “appeal” for “clemency.”

Clemency is typically sought after one has been convicted of crimes. They make a formal request for clemency to the government (as Private Chelsea Manning did a few months ago after she was sentenced to thirty-five years in military prison for releasing information to WikiLeaks).

Jesselyn Radack, an attorney and national security and human rights director of the Government Accountability Project who has spoken on behalf of Snowden, said “any fair reading of the letter” to the German government would not lead one to think he had made a request for clemency. That “implies he is guilty and now asking for some sort of pardon or commutation.”

Snowden has not been convicted. He has been charged with theft of government property and two violations of a World War I-era law originally intended for prosecuting spies, which is known as the Espionage Act. It was intended for prosecuting spies, not leakers—and definitely not whistleblowers (although President Barack Obama has used it against leakers or whistleblowers to an alarming extent).

Additionally, Radack indicated she was surprised that all throughout the weekend no media outlets contacted her or anyone connected with Snowden to confirm whether a formal clemency request had been submitted or rejected.

This misperception around a plea for clemency has greatly benefited the US government. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Mike Rogers and an aide from the White House would not have had the question put to them of whether Snowden deserved “clemency” on Sunday morning news programs if the Times had not inaccurately reported on the letter. They would not have been given the gift of being able to abruptly reframe debate around Snowden so that people were essentially talking about how someone “guilty” does not get to dodge responsibility for committing crimes.

Something untrue was responded to by the government as if it were truth. Then, those statements breathed new life into the idea that Snowden sought clemency as media from around the world covered what was said by officials in the US government.

While it was not likely the intention of the Times to help the government frame discussion around Snowden’s guilt in such a way that would benefit them, that is the effect their inaccurate and sloppy reporting had.

But the problematic coverage of Snowden is not limited to this story. Steven Lee Myers wrote a story for the Times on October 31 that consisted of gossip from one “expert,” a Russian security services historian Andrei Soldatov, who suggested Snowden was under the control of Russian intelligence.

There were no sources from within Russian intelligence or the Russian government that were providing details on how Snowden was being handled. Myers did interview former CIA officer Ray McGovern and Radack, who recently visited him in October, but what they said was secondary to the arguments made by Soldatov.

The article was speculation that amounted to disinformation. And, if Myers had said later that a US government official helped him develop the story, it would have been entirely believable.

The New York Times should immediately issue a correction to the part of their story that suggested Snowden’s letter was an appeal for “clemency.”

Furthermore, if the media organization intends to keep covering the Snowden story, it should develop sources that can provide accurate information about what is really happening with Snowden and not what they think is happening because they asked some expert for their educated opinion that could be slickly masqueraded as fact. And, if lawyers representing Snowden will not share details, that is no excuse to go fabricate some plausible scenarios for readers to enjoy as news.

Update 1 

On November 3, Ray McGovern sent the New York Times a request for a correction because he believed his words had been unfortunately juxtaposed:

I was quoted in Steven Lee Myers’s “In Shadows, Hints of a Life and Even a Job for Snowden” (NYT, Oct. 31) as saying “He’s free, but not completely free” in asylum in Russia.  An unfortunate juxtaposition in the text of Mr. Myers’s piece has led several acquaintances to misinterpret my words.  I trust you will agree that the issue is of some importance; thus, my request that you publish this clarification.

Mr. Myers quotes me correctly.  Unfortunately, the immediately preceding sentences quote a Russian journalist, who “cautioned” that the appearance of a “happy, open asylum” could be “propaganda,” and that the Russian security services might be waiting to question Mr. Snowden until he becomes “increasingly dependent on them.”

McGovern explains that what he meant to call attention to was threats to his safety from the US government and highlights a quote from Snowden’s Russian lawyer,  which was similar to what he was suggesting to Myers:

In his Oct. 31 article, Mr. Myers includes an instructive remark from Anatoly Kucherena, a Russian lawyer assisting Mr. Snowden.  Mr. Kucherena told Myers he would not discuss Mr. Snowden’s life in exile “because the level of threat from the U.S. government structures is still very high.”

In this case, it appears it is acceptable for Russians to be quoted when they make statements about threats from the US government because it amps up the narrative Russia continues to protect Snowden to stick a finger in the eye of the US. Yet, when people like McGovern call out the US government and describe how Snowden’s safety is in jeopardy because of the US government, that does not fit the narrative.