In a world where you can tweet at your favorite celebrity, neighborhood crush or despised politician, it was only a matter of time until famed whistleblowers were in reach as well.
Edward Snowden made that possibility reality on Tuesday when he created an official Twitter account, @Snowden, which he’ll be running from Russia, where he’s currently exiled. If he returns to U.S. soil, he faces charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, among a host of other issues.
As compared to other well-known national security whistleblowers, such as Mark Felt, or “Deep Throat,” who exposed the Watergate incident and led to Former President Richard Nixon’s resignation, Snowden’s created an immense public presence. He regularly speaks at events and held a Reddit Ask Me Anything session earlier this year, for example. His public profile is anything but low-key.
Having amassed more than a million followers in a day, Snowden follows only one account: that of the National Security Agency (NSA). Maybe it’s a massive troll, meant to engage politicians, like New York Governor George Pataki.
Beyond calling him a traitor, Pataki requested that Twitter take down his account.
— George E. Pataki (@GovernorPataki) September 29, 2015
That likely won’t happen, especially given, for example, that members of ISIS have functioning accounts.
Now, with his Twitter serving as a direct line of communication for the former NSA contractor, at least one attorney could see this working in Snowden’s favor if a trial were to come to fruition.
Kathleen Clark, a lawyer and law professor at Washington University with a specialization in whistleblower law, said by taking charge of his own image management, Snowden is able to establish his identity.
It’s not up to only the Justice Department or the Obama administration to “make claims about his motivations or view of the world or personality,” she said in an interview with SCMagazine.com.
“If it were up to the Justice Department and national security establishment to portray Edward Snowden, I think we know what they would have to say about him,” she said. “I think it’s probably a smart choice on his part to exercise some control over it and try to influence how the public views him.”
One retired senator called for Snowden’s public execution if and when he returns to the U.S., if that’s any indication of at least some government sentiment.
As far as his espionage charges, if brought to court, Snowden wouldn’t be able to argue that his leaks were in the public interest due to the way the espionage statute has been previously interpreted, Clark said.
Instead, he’d have to show the information he exposed was not properly classified and that there was no reasonable belief it would harm national security.
Snowden’s countered that these restraints wouldn’t allow for a fair trial.
That being said, running a Twitter account and maintaining a major public profile while on the run is a relatively new phenomenon, so how exactly that could impact a trial remains totally theoretical.
“I think the scale of the disclosures and the way he’s been successful in reaching out to have a public presence since making the revelations has — I cant think of any precedent,” said Clark. “I can’t think of another whistleblower person who has gone abroad; no one is coming to mind.”