A campaign to pardon NSA leaker Edward Snowden, launched in combination with a fawning Oliver Stone film about him, hasn’t made any headway. The request spurred the entire membership of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, 13 Republicans and 9 Democrats, to send a letter to President Barack Obama urging against a pardon. “He is a criminal,” they stated flatly.
Obama weighed in on the matter on Friday. During his European tour, he was interviewed by Der Spiegel—the largest newspaper in Germany, a country where Snowden is particularly popular. After discussing a wide range of issues, he was asked: Are you going to pardon Edward Snowden?
Obama replied: “I can’t pardon somebody who hasn’t gone before a court and presented themselves, so that’s not something that I would comment on at this point.” He continued:
I think that Mr. Snowden raised some legitimate concerns. How he did it was something that did not follow the procedures and practices of our intelligence community. If everybody took the approach that I make my own decisions about these issues, then it would be very hard to have an organized government or any kind of national security system.
At the point at which Mr. Snowden wants to present himself before the legal authorities and make his arguments or have his lawyers make his arguments, then I think those issues come into play. Until that time, what I’ve tried to suggest — both to the American people, but also to the world — is that we do have to balance this issue of privacy and security.
When Obama said he “can’t” pardon Snowden he may have meant he “won’t” do it, unless circumstances change. Presidents have historically issued pardons even when no court or prosecutor has taken action, which was pointed out by Noa Yachot, who directs the Pardon Snowden campaign.
“The president can pardon anyone,” wrote Yachot. “Richard Nixon hadn’t even been indicted when Gerald Ford issued a ‘full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in’ over the course of his presidency. Nor had the thousands of men who had evaded the Vietnam War draft, who were pardoned unconditionally by Jimmy Carter on his first day in office.”
And as part of the Iran nuclear deal he negotiated, Obama himself pardoned three Iranian-American men who had been indicted but had not stood trial.
Snowden faces charges under the Espionage Act, a World War One-era law that doesn’t distinguish between confidential material being given to foreign powers or to a journalist. The ACLU has called the law “draconian.”