A number of prominent human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have launched a campaign calling on President Obama to issue a pardon to whistle-blower Edward Snowden, before he leaves office in January 2017.
The Pardon Snowden campaign, that calls for President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, argues that the actions of the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor were in the public interest and morally right. It was launched on 14 September to coincide with the US release of the film “Snowden”, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Snowden became known around the world when he leaked classified documents to journalists in Hong Kong in 2013. The information revealed the extent of mass surveillance being conducted illegally by the US and UK, and prompted a global debate over US intelligence gathering and policy.
While the journalists who reported the revelations were awarded with a number of prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, Snowden was charged by the US under the Espionage Act. His passport was withdrawn as he attempted to flee to South America, and he was left living in exile in Russia.
In a recent video interview from Moscow, he told Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill that a pardon would be justified because without the surveillance revelations the world would be worse off.
“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,” he said.
Amnesty International is one of many groups supporting the appeal and their secretary general Salil Shetty said in a statement that it was clear Snowden had acted in the public interest.
“He sparked one of the most important debates about government surveillance in decades, and brought about a global movement in defense of privacy in the digital age. Punishing him for this, sends out the dangerous message that those who witness human rights violations behind closed doors should not speak out,” he said.
“It is ironic that it is Snowden who is being treated like a spy, when his act of courage drew attention to the fact that the US and UK governments were illegally spying on millions of people without their consent. The mass surveillance exposed by Snowden impacts the human rights of people around the world.”
Shetty added that if President Obama leaves office with Snowden still in exile, it will be a “deep stain” on the president’s legacy. In 2015 the White House rejected a previous pardon petition, calling the leaks “dangerous”.
Many government officials in the US and the UK argue that Snowden’s actions were not in the public interest, and have caused irreversible damage to their countries’ national security. However, they have not provided any evidence of this publicly.
Just days after the pardon campaign was launched, a US House of Representatives intelligence committee report was published stating that Snowden should not be called a whistle-blower because he is a “serial exaggerator and fabricator”.
The chairman of the committee, Devin Nunes, said that Snowden had betrayed his country and “put our service members and the American people at risk”.
He added: “In light of his long list of exaggerations and outright fabrications detailed in this report, no one should take him at his word. I look forward to his eventual return to the United States, where he will face justice for his damaging crimes.”
Obama’s war on whistle-blowers
Snowden has been regularly criticized for not turning himself in and facing justice. In 2013 White House national security adviser Susan Rice said he should return to the US and “have his day in court.” But, because the Obama administration opted to charge him under the outdated Espionage Act, turning himself in would mean facing an unfair trial.
The federal law dates back to World War 1, and was created to prosecute spies, not whistle-blowers. This means that a whistle-blower defense would not be available to Snowden and his motive, intent and the public value of the material he disclosed, would be irrelevant, despite the fact they would be key to his case.
The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers under this law than all previous presidents combined. In October 2014 the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) legislative counsel Gabe Rottman, noted the huge difference in jail time this has resulted in: “The Obama administration has secured 526 months of prison time for national security leakers, versus only 24 months total jail time for everyone else since the American Revolution.”
Among those leakers are former NSA executive Thomas Drake, former CIA officer John Kiriakou and US Army Private Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning), charged for revealing illegal US surveillance, torture and war crimes respectively.
Ben Wizner, Edward Snowden’s attorney and director of the ACLU’s speech, privacy, and technology project, said: “President Obama has the opportunity to recognise one of the most significant acts of whistle-blowing in modern history. In light of Snowden’s very concrete contributions to democratic debate worldwide; we should be talking about how to thank him, not how to punish him.”
(Writing by Steve Shaw; Editing by Ana Vugrinec & Robyn Hunter)