Obama has an opportunity in his last days in office to demonstrate the reason and balance that we expect from our President. With the presidential pardon, the founding fathers created a method of oversight that would allow the nation’s Chief Executive to take a step no other elected official will likely ever have an opportunity, or be motivated to, deliver: provide a conditional pardon for Edward J. Snowden.
Edward Snowden is a criminal. As a civilian contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton working in Hawaii in 2013, he stole classified NSA documents. He leaked those documents to three journalists who published details initially in The Guardian and The Washington Post. The US Department of Justice charged Snowden with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, for “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person”.
Snowden shared details of the NSA’s program code named PRISM, whereby communication from major US telecommunications and internet companies (along the core backbone of the internet) is collected and stored for review by the intelligence agency with on FISA-court approval. The leaked information, investigations and analysis exposed the NSA’s near-Orwellian ability to spy on the American people and our allies, as well as those who are our enemies today.
These criminal actions and the exposure of PRISM led to some reform of the intelligence community. Obama created a task force that made numerous recommendations for additional court scrutiny for the NSA. Congress limited the collection of data on American citizens with language in the 2015 USA Freedom Act. However, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who famously provided erroneous testimony in front of Congress (stating that the NSA does not “collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans”) but then retracted that statement under pressure, remained in office throughout the end of Obama’s second term.
The Obama administration’s current approach is to keep it at arms’ length. Snowden is in Moscow, he cannot do any further damage, and he is no longer in the news every day. America and the world have larger threats. He will likely never leave Russia.
Ignoring a problem isn’t punishment. If Snowden’s asylum in Russia expires, he’ll find another country willing to harbor him. He will never be forced to return to the United States to face charges.
The Trump administration is likely to take a very hard line against Snowden, but probably more bark than bite. It is not hard to imagine that with every blustering word, Snowden comes closer to martyrdom.
Offering a compromise demonstrates a fair and well-reasoned resolution. Snowden clearly broke the law, and there should be punishment. Obama and Congress demonstrated through reforms that what he exposed was clearly wrong. I don’t know what shape a compromise should take. Minimal jail time, possibly a commuted sentence, recognizing his three years in asylum on the run.
Obama should take a stand now. No president will have a better opportunity to prevent this from becoming a larger black eye than it already is.