NEWS BRIEF Barack Obama has been on a clemency kick during his final months in office. Last month he commuted the sentences of more than 200 federal inmates, the most presidential clemencies granted in a single day in more than a century. There will likely be more commutations, and perhaps some pardons as well, an executive action that historically sits low on a president’s exit checklist. When that time comes, one American has a suggestion for who the president might pardon.
Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower who has been living in exile in Russia for more than three years, says Obama should pardon him before he leaves office next year. Snowden said he should be eligible for clemency because his decision to disclose classified information about U.S. and British surveillance programs was morally correct and benefitted the public.
“Yes, there are laws on the books that say one thing, but that is perhaps why the pardon power exists—for the exceptions, for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally, when we look at them ethically, when we look at the results, it seems these were necessary things, these were vital things,” Snowden said in an interview with The Guardian Monday that was published Tuesday.
Snowden spoke to The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill through a video link from Moscow, where he has lived since June 2013 after he left the United States and traveled to Hong Kong to leak to journalists classified documents from the NSA, where he worked as a contractor. A steady drip of news reports followed, detailing secret and widespread government surveillance of the communication of millions of Americans, internet companies, and foreign governments. That led to national debate over privacy and legislation reforms targeting some of the programs Snowden exposed.
“If not for these disclosures, if not for these revelations, we would be worse off,” Snowden told MacAskill.
Presidential pardons apply to people who have been convicted or charged with crimes. In June 2013, Snowden was charged with three felonies: theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person. Those last two charges were brought under the Espionage Act of 1917, federal law that criminalizes and punishes spying. Each charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
“I think when people look at the calculations of benefit, it is clear that in the wake of 2013 the laws of our nation changed,” Snowden told The Guardian. “The [US] Congress, the courts and the president all changed their policies as a result of these disclosures. At the same time there has never been any public evidence that any individual came to harm as a result.”
For a fugitive, Snowden is in the public eye a lot. He sits on the board of directors for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which supports First Amendment rights. He regularly appears at various tech conferences around the world via video, giving speeches. He joined Twitter last September, where he trolls U.S. government officials.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International said this week they will launch a campaign to petition the White House for a presidential pardon for Snowden. But the chances of Obama granting one are close to nonexistent. The White House said Monday, as it has before, that Snowden should face charges on American soil, where he would be “treated fairly and consistent with the law.” In July 2015, the White House rejected a petition to pardon Snowden that reached 168,000 signatures, two years after it met the 100,000-signature threshold the White House requires to provide an official response.
In May, Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and a close friend of Obama, said while Snowden’s leak of classified information was “inappropriate and illegal,” the whistleblower had performed a “public service.”
But the two people next in line for the power to pardon don’t agree. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump last year called Snowden a “bad guy" and suggested he be executed. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton says Snowden should return to the U.S. to face trial.
Snowden has repeatedly said he wants to come back to the U.S. In the Guardian interview, he said, “in the fullness of time, I think I will end up back home.” And history, he said, will be on his side.
“Once the officials, who felt like they had to protect the programs, their positions, their careers, have left government and we start looking at things from a more historical perspective,” he said, “it will be pretty clear that this war on whistleblowers does not serve the interests of the United States; rather it harms them.”