Last month, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, wrote a letter to the editors of The New York Times. He argued that a recent column that attacked President Obama’s record on government transparency had failed to take into account the steps the administration took to fulfill Obama’s campaign promise of overseeing “the most transparent White House in history.”
The letter was mocked by journalists who have railed against the Obama administration’s startling opacity for years. After it was published, the Sunlight Foundation broke down the president’s record on various measures of transparency, concluding that Obama will leave, at best, a “mixed” legacy.
Now, a group of human-rights organizations is asking for a reprieve for the man who’s done most to expose the Obama administration’s lack of transparency. The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch are asking President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed the National Security Agency’s digital spying programs.
In a press conference yesterday, representatives from the three organizations spoke in support of the campaign to pardon Snowden. “Cases like Edward Snowden’s are precisely why the presidential pardon power exists,” said Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s executive director: cases when mitigating circumstances merit forgiveness for a crime. (Snowden is not involved in the campaign for his pardon, but he did address the press conference by video from Moscow to thank the organizations for their support.)
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.
The campaign organizers are aiming straight for Obama’s instinct to ignore critics during his final months in office. “A pardon would help the president acknowledge that the government did wrong,” said the ACLU’s Romero. “It would be a counterpoint to some of the most problematic aspects of President Obama’s national-security legacy.”
Entertaining the groups’ demands would not place Obama entirely outside the mainstream. Eric Holder, Obama’s first attorney general, has called Snowden’s leak a “public service,” though he stopped short of calling for a pardon. And on Wednesday, Bernie Sanders wrote for The Guardian that “the interests of justice would be best served if our government granted him some form of clemency or a plea agreement that would spare him a long prison sentence or permanent exile.”
Obama has pardoned a historically low number of people during his presidency, though he has commuted more sentences than any president since Calvin Coolidge.
In contrast to the statements from the White House press office, the Obama administration has in fact often been hostile to journalists and whistleblowers, marring his promise to bring unparalleled transparency to the presidency. As the end of his second term nears, Snowden and his supporters hope the president will seize a chance to make a conciliatory gesture with an eye to the history books—before he leaves office, taking with him any reasonable chance for clemency.