Activists and lawyers from a host of human rights organizations launched a campaign today asking President Obama to issue a pardon to whistleblower Edward Snowden before Obama leaves office in January.
The coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other groups. Snowden is charged with espionage for leaking internal National Security Agency documents to the press and could face 30 years in prison if he returned to the U.S. from Moscow, where he currently resides.
Snowden has also made his own case for a presidential pardon, arguing that the surveillance reforms enacted by Congress and the president himself demonstrate the value of his actions, but stopped short of explicitly asking for a pardon.
“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,” Snowden said at a press conference this morning announcing the campaign.
Presidential pardons are frequently issued in the twilight hours of an administration, when outgoing presidents face fewer political risks. Pardons can be controversial — President Bill Clinton faced backlash in 2001 when he pardoned Marc Rich, a Clinton donor and hedge fund manager who was charged with tax evasion and illegal oil dealings with Iran — and so presidents sometimes wait until the last moment to grant them. Obama has pardoned more than 50 individuals during his time in office.
The Pardon Snowden campaign launches in tandem with the debut of “Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s biopic about the NSA whistleblower. Pardon Snowden staffers say the campaign launch didn’t deliberately coincide with the film’s release, but they hope the film will help raise awareness and interest about Snowden as an individual.
“The movie is the story of Ed the person,” said Sue Gardner, who co-chairs the campaign along with Snowden’s ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner. “I think it does a great job of portraying this young man’s dawning awareness that this system he was part of needed to not be entirely a secret, needed to be assessed and evaluated and come under better scrutiny. It lays out clearly why Ed did what he did. He was not reckless, he was very careful in who he made the material available to, and he was acting in the best interests of the American public as he understood them.”
The Pardon Snowden campaign will be staffed by two full-time employees: Noa Yachot of the ACLU will lead the effort, with assistance from Parker Higgins of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The duo will receive support from staffers at the human rights organizations involved in the campaign. “Everybody else is working on it as part of their day job, or is volunteering. Advocacy organizations are joining up to support the campaign because they see Ed as a whistleblower who acted in the public interest, and as somebody who deserves to be thanked rather than punished,” Gardner explained.
Snowden’s supporters say there is a clear difference between espionage — leaking classified information to other nations — and whistleblowing. They argue Snowden’s disclosures brought about necessary surveillance reforms, advanced encryption, and were properly filtered through news organizations to prevent harm of disclosures not in the public interest.
Although activists argued a strong case for the value of Snowden’s disclosures, a presidential pardon seems like a moonshot. Obama has condemned the former NSA contractor’s actions in previous public statements, saying in 2014 that Snowden revealed “methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”
There is also little support for a presidential pardon from other U.S. officials. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the audience at Disrupt SF yesterday that Snowden should not be pardoned. “This did tremendous harm to our security; it did tremendous harm to many American companies and their competitive situation in the world, and complicated our relations with foreign powers,” Carter said of the Snowden disclosures. “There are 300 million of us in this country. We can’t all — particularly when we have a special trust — we can’t all just decide by ourselves. I object to that. I truly object to that. That is arrogating to oneself a power to do things to other people that was not part of the deal when you were entrusted with that information in the first place.”
But even if Obama doesn’t pardon Snowden, the campaign wants to “document, consolidate and amplify support” for him, Gardner said, adding that even if the campaign didn’t bring him home right away, it would hopefully enable him to come home eventually.
“It’s now clear that what Ed did didn’t hurt the United States, it helped it,” Gardner said, citing the surveillance reforms approved by Obama. “Last year, a federal court ruled that the call-tracking program that Ed revealed was unconstitutional, and Congress changed the law that had authorized it. Hardly anybody used to encrypt their communications, and many didn’t even knew what encryption was. Now many people’s communications are encrypted by default, and people like Tim Cook are arguing publicly with the government about the importance of privacy. This is all good. Even the debate itself, which we might wish were unnecessary: it is healthier to have it, than not.”
Snowden also took the opportunity to argue in favor of strong encryption. He has been credited by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper with advancing the widespread adoption of encryption by seven years. “The science here is clear: reliable, uncompromised encryption is our only effective means of keeping our lights on and our roads open,” Snowden said.
“Nobody’s been able to show any damage done by the disclosures Ed made, and the beneficial effects are obvious,” Gardner said. “That’s the message the campaign intends to send to the president.”
View Snowden’s full statement in the video below.