Romero and the other advocates made an appeal that a pardon would do more than bring one man back from hiding in Moscow. It would send a message to future whistleblowers, they said, that they will be protected if they came forward with information in the public interest. “We will need more Edward Snowdens,” said Naureen Shah, the director of U.S. human rights for Amnesty International.
But does the plea for clemency have a chance?
Early results point to no. Earnest told reporters Wednesday afternoon that the White House doesn’t consider Snowden a whistleblower, and that the president thinks he should return to the U.S. to face the charges of espionage filed against him in 2013. Snowden has admitted to sharing classified information, and would be likely to be convicted of the charges if he stands trial.
Even if Obama were considering changing his mind, his advisors would likely tell him that a pardon would play right into the conservative narrative that Obama is weak on national security issues, and fuel attacks that Obama has a habit of apologizing for America. Lawmakers from both parties have called Snowden a traitor for leaking information to the press that could hurt American interests and make it harder for the intelligence community to gather information on threats to the homeland. Obama may not want to spend precious political capital on Snowden, especially as he looks to shore up other policies, like his ambitious nuclear deal with Iran.
And the backdrop of the incendiary presidential election further complicates the decision. To avoid hurting Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, the White House would likely wait until after the election to announce a pardon. But doing so would clash with Clinton’s previously stated position on Snowden: During a primary debate last year, she said he should not “be brought home without facing the music” because he broke laws and revealed important information. She also said she did not consider him a whistleblower. (Trump, for his part, had this to say on Snowden in 2013: “This guy is a bad guy. And, you know, there is still a thing called execution.”)
The civil-rights groups’ request for a pardon coincides with this week’s release of a biopic about Snowden written and directed by Oliver Stone. The campaign also took out full-page ads in The Washington Post and Politico. A letter asking President Obama for a pardon has already been signed by big-name supporters in the tech world (Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales and Steve Wozniak of Apple); Hollywood (Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon); human-rights advocacy (George Soros); and academia (too many to count).
The only hope for securing clemency is to appeal to Obama’s concern for his legacy. During his second term, Obama shown that he’s willing to make unpopular decisions that align with his goals: He’s sharply expanded climate regulations over the last four years, for example, and his controversial overtures to Cuba culminated in a historic presidential trip to Havana this March. Recent small-scale moves have gone against the grain as well, such as when he nominated the first-ever Muslim judge to a federal bench last week.