The White House was unmoved by the overwhelming public outcry for clemency towards Edward Snowden, the outspoken whistleblower who brought attention to the questionable NSA surveillance programs in the U.S. and elsewhere in the globe. Although a whopping 167,954 people signed the Snowden pardon petition, the Obama administration thinks that he is a dangerous person who needs to face the consequences of his actions.
The petitioners hold a different opinion altogether. To them, Snowden is a hero who should receive a full pardon for the crimes he may have committed while exposing the pervasive mass surveillance activities of the NSA. These sentiments were echoed in the “We The People” petition title “Pardon Edward Snowden” filed earlier calling for the government to grant the whistleblower amnesty. According to civil liberty advocates, Snowden’s actions were courageous, and granting clemency is the least the government can do to acknowledge his bravery. However, the Obama administration has been pretty vocal that pardoning Snowden is completely out of the question. In its response through Obama’s adviser, Lisa Monaco, the administration recognizes that there is a need to balance security and civil rights. However, while Snowden’s actions touched on these issues, the White House claims that his approach left much to be desired. According to the statement, Snowden should have used a “constructive act of protest” if he felt that his actions constituted civil disobedience, and then “accept the consequences of his actions.”
According to the White House, because Snowden failed to be constructive in addressing the security and civil liberty issues that his revelations touched on, he jeopardized the security of Americans and those who dedicate their lives to providing it. Snowden stole and disclosed classified information that rallied the public against the government based on what it considered blatant disregard for basic civil liberties as it pursued an aggressive and controversial mass surveillance agenda.
In defense of its position, the administration explained that the world is different now: there are threats like terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and even cyber-attacks. Therefore, security outfits need to use all the tools at their disposal to deal with such threats. While this statement could be interpreted as condoning the actions of the NSA, the administration went on to express an interest in opening up the discussion of the appropriate balance between security, individual freedoms, and the ideals envisioned in the Constitution.
Snowden leaked the classified information in May of 2013. The revelations proved the existence NSA’s widespread surveillance operations both locally and elsewhere in the world. The controversy stemmed from the fact that the target of these surveillance programs included American citizens and that the confiscation of private communications were obtained without due process. The information Snowden obtained while working as an NSA contractor was eventually revealed to Glenn Greenwald, a journalist, and Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker, both of whom went on to get worldwide recognition for their involvement. A month later, Snowden was facing charges of espionage and stealing of government property.
A few days after the charges, he fled to Russia and hid in an undisclosed location while also applying for asylum in 21 other countries.
The recent statement by the government asks him to get back to the US and face the consequences of his actions. His Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, said last year that Snowden would be willing to go back to the U.S. if he were assured of a fair trial. In light of the White House’s reaction to the petition for his pardon, it seems unlikely that he would be welcomed back anytime soon.
Although Snowden has been assured that he will receive a fair trial, this may prove easier said than done. Due to the nature of his charges, which include an accusation of violating the Espionage Act, he might fail to get an opportunity to defend himself. As it turns out, the law makes no distinction between sharing information with the local press and a foreign enemy. Therefore, the fact that the government should have disclosed this information to the public in the first place, or that the revelations have led to extensive reforms, not just in the U.S., but around the world, would be irrelevant in the case.
In June, there was an overwhelming approval for the proposed USA Freedom ACT by federal lawmakers, which was the direct result of the revelations Snowden made about covert government surveillance operations. As a result of the Act, the responsibility of keeping phone records for millions of Americans has moved from the federal government into the hands of private telecommunication companies. However, despite sharing in Snowden’s concerns about public surveillance, most of these lawmakers were also in support of prosecuting him for breaking the law. Snowden has yet to comment on the recent White House statement.