Question: What’s the secret to going on the lam as an anti-government global superstar and getting set up in a nice, cushy exile in a country that’s a rival to your own?
Answer: Be a keyboard-tapping, suburban-raised white guy who gives away national secrets and then puts a “patriotic” spin on it. You’ll lock in big-conference speaking stints over an encrypted Skype feed and get a prime-time interview on network news, and the federal government might even consider offering you a sweetheart plea deal while you’re at it.
At least that’s what the Washington Post’s intelligence insider, David Ignatius, managed to pry from the intelligence community recently about Edward Snowden, quoting a source saying, “If he came back and told everything he knows, then perhaps some accommodation could be reached.” It’s something that Snowden himself alluded to in his recent interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams, and it’s a “discussion” that National Security Agency Deputy Director Rick Ledgett suggested might be entertained when he was backed into it by zealous techies looking to shield Snowden from the clutches of embarrassed G-men.
And if that plea deal ever happens, it'll be a little bit like the 15-month slap on the wrist that was handed out to Piper Kerman—the real-life memoirist on whose experiences the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black is based—especially when compared with the 24 years that a similarly situated black woman, Kemba Smith, got for pretty much the same crime. Kerman got a show, and Oliver Stone just announced plans for a biopic about Snowden.
Smith can’t even get a Lifetime movie.
With the early talk of a deal for Snowden, I can’t help comparing his situation with that of nonwhite anti-government “revolutionaries” who have been in similar tough spots. If Snowden were black and exiled in another country, not only would any talk of a plea be actively dismissed, but he’d be openly ridiculed and spat on as a treacherous militant.
Just contrast his story with that of former Kansas City, Mo., Black Panther Party Chairman Pete O’Neal, who is permanently exiled in Tanzania after fleeing a 1969 conviction for transporting a shotgun across state lines. And though his cousin, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), has exhausted all channels for a plea or clemency deal, you won’t be hearing about that coming to pass anytime soon.
It’s a double standard. A black revolutionary draws no sympathy when lined up against the big-data play of white geek Snowden, who has a fairly large reservoir of of supporters who say he did the right thing. The difference in Snowden’s case is that he used much more sophisticated technological tools and tactics. But if the government’s claim—that Snowden’s actions placed an entire nation and its allies at risk—is true, then why would he get a deal when the guy who took a shotgun across state lines won’t?
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.