Why Obama should pardon Snowden
Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey weighed in last week on the subject of Edward Snowden. Asked about calls of clemency for the former National Security Agency contractor, Woolsey insisted that Snowden should be “hanged by the neck until he is dead.”
Woolsey reflects the current thinking in Washington: reform for the NSA and the rope for Snowden. However, it may be time for President Obama to show real leadership and acknowledge that Snowden is the reason for the current reform push.
It may be time to pardon Edward Snowden.
He has almost certainly committed criminal acts in removing and disclosing classified material. As someone who has held a top-secret clearance since the Reagan administration, I do not condone such violations of national security laws. However, Snowden is a better candidate for clemency than many believe.
A presidential pardon is not an endorsement of the underlying actions of an individual. To the contrary, the vast majority of pardons follow criminal convictions. Rather, pardons are issued because of mitigating or extenuating circumstances.
Sometimes clemency is a way of healing a national divide or bringing closure to a national controversy. George Washington pardoned all of those in the Whiskey Rebellion, and John Adams considered it in “the public good” to pardon Pennsylvania rebels. Likewise, Gerald Ford did not condone the crimes of Richard Nixon, but he viewed a pardon as in the best interest of the country.
Presidential pardons can be issued at any time after an alleged offense, even before a person is charged or convicted. Such was the case with Jimmy Carter’s pardon of draft dodgers and Ronald Reagan’s pardon of the six officials accused in the Iran-Contra affair.
When considered in light of the thousands of past pardon and commutation recipients, Snowden compares favorably. Indeed, there have been many questionable pardons granted over the years to well-connected defendants, like that of businessman Marc Rich, who was convicted of tax evasion and other crimes but then pardoned by Bill Clinton.
While the Obama administration continues to insist that Snowden does not fit the definition of a whistle-blower, even the White House admits that abuses occurred in the massive NSA surveillance program that he revealed. Snowden’s disclosures have prompted the creation of two task forces, one of which came back last week with a recommendation of numerous reforms. Moreover, a federal judge has now ruled that the NSA program is flagrantly unconstitutional.
Snowden may have revealed a larger volume of material, but he is not the first to disclose highly classified matters. Most whistle-blowers release either confidential or classified material. Indeed, Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers (celebrated as one of the most important moments in our history) involved the release of classified documents that the Nixon administration insisted placed the entire nation at risk.
Snowden faced a system that was entirely uninterested in, if not outright hostile to, hearing about abuses. Indeed, various people had tried to raise questions about the extent of government surveillance in previous years. I represented one prior NSA whistle-blower who disclosed the massive surveillance program, but the public ignored him and he was threatened with arrest.
Despite such cases and media coverage, the White House and Congress turned a blind eye to abuses. It was Snowden who forced action by leaking documents to a journalist. Both Obama and congressional leaders have called for Snowden’s arrest, but he was as much their creation as his own.
Some NSA officials have already suggested that amnesty could be used to secure thousands of documents still in Snowden’s possession. A pardon could be conditioned on the return of all these documents and the signing of a nondisclosure agreement that would allow prosecution for any further disclosures.
Moreover, a pardon would demonstrate to both Americans and our allies that the White House is serious about reform, and accepts responsibility for the abuses that have been documented.
Finally, a pardon would resolve a glaring contradiction in how the White House has dealt with alleged crimes by national security officials. After all, this is the president who pledged early in his first term that no CIA employee would be investigated, let alone prosecuted, for the Bush torture program. Likewise, no one was prosecuted when CIA officials admitted destroying torture tapes to avoid their use in any future prosecution. Finally, when the NSA program was raised in public, National Intelligence Director James Clapper appeared before Congress and lied about the program. He later said that he gave the least untruthful statement he could think of. But it was nevertheless untrue and potentially a crime for which he could be prosecuted.
But instead of firing Clapper and calling for his arrest, Obama asked him to participate on a task force to review the program.
Snowden could certainly take additional actions that could destroy any claim to a pardon. However, as he stands now, he has a greater claim than many who have received reprieves. He certainly deserves the same consideration in disclosing abuses that Obama officials received in concealing them from the public.
Jonathan Turley is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University and has served as lead defense counsel in national security cases.
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