On the week the Hollywood version of the Edward Snowden story opens in theaters, the real life former National Security Agency contractor and his supporters hope the spotlight helps their cause.
The American Civil Liberties Union, along with other rights groups, a cadre of celebrities, notable writers, and digital rights activists, are backing an effort seeking a presidential pardon for Mr. Snowden, who faces a possible 30-year prison sentence if convicted under the Espionage Act for exposing details on top secret US surveillance programs.
In a petition campaign launched Wednesday, supporters of the “Pardon Snowden” campaign are seeking to portray Mr. Snowden as a “whistleblower who acted on the conviction that the public had a right and need to know about a global mass surveillance system that exceeded the limits of the Constitution.”
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But while many people hail Snowden as a hero for exposing the scope of National Security Agency surveillance around the world, helping usher in surveillance reform in Washington, his backers may have an uphill battle convincing President Obama that he deserves a reprieve from prosecution.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday Mr. Obama continues to believe Snowden “damaged the United States” and said the NSA leaker should return home to face trial, where he will be “treated fairly and consistently with the law.”
Responding to a similar petition signed by more than 160,000 people last year, Lisa Monaco, the president’s advisor on counterterrorism and homeland security, said Snowden’s “dangerous” actions had “severe consequences” for US national security.
The American public appears to be split when it comes to assessing Snowden’s actions. A June 2013 Gallup poll found 44 percent of US adults approved of his actions, while 42 percent said he was wrong. A 2015 ACLU poll found 64 percent of Americans who were familiar with Snowden held a negative view of him, while 36 held a positive opinion. In that poll, only 8 percent of respondents held a “very positive” opinion.
But in the three years since Snowden’s first NSA leaks, which sparked a global discussion about digital privacy and security issues, supporters feel that the tide has turned in support of his actions, so much so that Obama may clear him of criminal charges.
“We do think there’s a chance,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, adding that Snowden’s revelations have had an international impact. “We believe this is precisely the right time for President Obama to act.”
At a press conference Wednesday announcing the petition, Snowden appeared via videoconference from Russia where he currently living in exile and said he was “deeply appreciative” and “moved beyond words” at the support for his case.
“This isn’t just about me,” Snowden said. “Whistleblowers are another check on abuses of power. We must ensure whistleblowers can act again.”
To be sure, however, the characterization of Snowden as a brave whistleblower who took personal risks to expose overreaching American surveillance programs is rejected by many prominent voices in Washington and in the military.
US intelligence chief James Clapper described the Snowden leak as “the most massive and most damaging theft of intelligence in our history.”
And because of the scope of the disclosures, Stewart Baker, a former NSA general counsel, doubted Obama would grant a pardon. “It sounds like they’re banking on the idea the president is a significant Snowden fan, and I’ve seen no evidence that’s the case,” Mr. Baker said.
“Only 1 kilobyte of the 1 gigabyte of data he’s released has started a debate,” he said. “The rest is serving the interest of the Russians and Chinese, and President Obama knows that.”
Still, said ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, who heads up Snowden’s legal team, the best way to bring his client home is by using public pressure on the White House. “We need to find the political will.”