There may be no time like the present to address the thorny issue of a pardon for Edward Snowden for activists determined to see him roaming free on US soil. The question is seemingly timed to the release of Oliver Stone’s blockbuster, Snowden, and the chorus for clemency is gaining momentum.
After all, the whistleblower’s story is one of the most compelling public scandals of the past decade, and the Democrats could use a boost in the polls this Fall with the younger generation (who mainly lionize Snowden), if only President Obama would pardon him .
It might be too much to ask, though, of a president who famously derided him, and who minimized the impact of his revelations in 2013, to now turn around and celebrate the event by pardoning him. But that’s just what many people are campaigning for him to do.
On the other hand, it would be just like the president to tweak the nose of the many flag-waving Republicans who have bedeviled him throughout his two terms in office. President Obama is busily burnishing his legacy with hundreds of pardons of late – mostly of drug felons – in an attempt to raise his standing in the eyes of black voters, as they will be important at the polls in November.
But while he’s emptying the jails of drug thugs, his thinking might be: why not go for broke, and pardon a high profile person such as Edward Snowden? What could be a bolder statement than that, especially coming from the least privacy-friendly president in history?
It would be quite a contrarian coup. Presidential pardons are frequently issued in the twilight hours of an administration, when outgoing presidents face fewer political risks. So, until the election is over, the risks are just too high now.
The USAToday, in an op-ed piece, weighs in on the possibility and reasons why a pardon at some point before Obama leaves office may not be so far-fetched. Whether Snowden is a candidate for a pardon depends on whether you view him as a patriot who performed a needed public service, or a traitor who jeopardized US national security and put lives at risk. I will attempt to raise arguments on both sides of the question in this article.
To be sure, the discussion of leniency will likely be a contentious one, and in any case, with a presidential election hanging in the balance, don’t hold out hope for any meaningful debate on the prospects for a Snowden pardon before the November election is in the books.
The Snowden pardon parade, being led by the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, argues vehemently that his whistle-blowing on NSA activities was, in fact, a public service in two ways: It revealed the NSA’s domestic spying, and it showed US citizens how their tax dollars are being spent in overseas wars – without giving away much our adversaries didn’t already know.
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Martin Dempsey, pointed out in a 2014 appearance before Congress that Snowden’s leaks were more about revealing military secrets than about domestic spying – the charge he for which he is being held to account under the Espionage Act. Thus, invoking the Act, which Obama has successfully done in shutting down more whistleblowers than any other president in history, doesn’t hold water.
Even so, Dempsey is wrong even on the military secrets accusation, as our enemies knew all too well about our capabilities and weaknesses. Just look at how feeble the military has been in recent campaigns, and the incessant terrorist attacks that continue unabated. For Snowden’s advocates, the issue is less murky.
His supporters say there is a clear difference between espionage (leaking classified information to other nations) and whistleblowing, and point to necessary surveillance reforms and the development of stronger encryption as positive outcomes of his revelations. He should, therefore, be thanked and exonerated, rather than vilified and punished.
Activists are realistic, however, especially when they look at the forces arrayed against Snowden who clamor for his prosecution. Yet, their hope is that, while the efforts to get him pardoned may fail in this turbulent climate, the evidence they compile, and the arguments they advance, now may lay the groundwork for future clemency. Snowden is also realistic about the prospects, but remains sanguine. He remarked not long ago at a press conference,
“The question of whether I as a whistleblower should be pardoned is not for me to answer, but I will say this. I love my country. I love my family. And I have dedicated my life to both of them. These risks, these burdens I took on, I knew were coming. And no one should be in a position to make these kinds of decisions. That’s not the kind of place we’re supposed to be.”
What about you? Where do stand on the issue of a pardon for Edward Snowden?