Bernie Sanders, Daniel Ellsberg, former members of the NSA and more weigh in on whether Obama should grant clemency to the divisive whistleblower
Bernie Sanders leads a chorus of prominent public figures calling for clemency, a plea agreement or, in several cases, a full pardon for the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Writing in the Guardian, the runner-up in the race to become Democratic presidential candidate argues that Snowden helped to educate the American public about how the NSA violated the constitutional rights of citizens with itsmass surveillance program. Sanders argues that there should be some form of resolution that would acknowledge both the “troubling revelations” that he had brought to light and the crime that he committed in doing so, that would “spare him a long prison sentence or permanent exile”.
Sanders joins 20 other prominent public figures – from Hollywood actors and rock musicians to politicians, professors and Black Lives Matter activists – who call on Barack Obama to find some way of allowing Snowden to return home to the US from exile in Russia. The Guardian’s voices are raised in the week that Oliver Stone’s film, Snowden, is released in the US and that a coalition of groups including the ACLU and Amnesty International launch a new campaign for a presidential pardon before Obama steps down.
Among the writers in the Guardian are Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who released the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, who calls for Snowden to be allowed to make a public interest defense in any US trial. From the world of arts, actor Susan Sarandon and director Terry Gilliam, novelist Barry Eisler and Sonic Youth singer Thurston Moore all make impassioned calls for an Obama pardon.
Senior politicians from both sides of the Atlantic, including former US senator Mark Udall, UK parliamentarian David Winnick and German Green party member Hans-Christian Ströbele all fly the flag for a Snowden homecoming. Similar calls are made by public intellectuals including Noam Chomsky, Cornel West and Sanders’ former Democratic presidential rival and Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig.
Not everyone writing in the Guardian today is empathetic towards the whistleblower. The former director of the NSA, Michael Hayden, says Snowden should face “the full force of the law” were he to come home. Stewart Baker, also latterly of the NSA, argues that Snowden’s leak caused harm to US national interests – a contention that is strongly disputed by many of the other people writing here.
US senator for Vermont and Democratic presidential runner-up
The information disclosed by Edward Snowden has allowed Congress and the American people to understand the degree to which the NSA has abused its authority and violated our constitutional rights.
Now we must learn from the troubling revelations Mr Snowden brought to light. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies must be given the tools they need to protect us, but that can be done in a way that does not sacrifice our rights.
While Mr Snowden played an important role in educating the American people, there is no debate that he also violated an oath and committed a crime. In my view, the interests of justice would be best served if our government granted him some form of clemency or a plea agreement that would spare him a long prison sentence or permanent exile.
Ed Snowden did this country a great service. Here was a man who had a well-paying job and a good life in Hawaii yet tore it all up so that he could reveal to all of us what the NSA was doing to us in the name of national security. He did so for no personal gain, and at massive personal cost, because he cared about a basic principle: that governments should not lie to their people.
I don’t think a person like that should be exiled from their country. I don’t think a person like that deserves to be locked away for decades like Chelsea Manning. I think President Obama should do the right thing: pardon Ed and let him come home to his family and his people.
Former US military analyst who released the 1971 Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war, and who met Snowden in Moscow last year
Ed Snowden should be freed of the legal burden hanging over him. They should remove the indictment, pardon him if that’s the way to do it, so that he is no longer facing prison.
The NSA and US government have revealed no evidence that the information Ed Snowden released has caused any harm. Inconvenience, yes, embarrassment certainly, but what has truly been revealed is that the NSA itself was unquestionably committing international, domestic and constitutional crimes.
Were the government to have any evidence that Snowden revealed information that should have been protected, I think he should be judged by a jury. I was the first person to be tried for a leak under the Espionage Act, and I certainly didn’t object to my case being weighed by a jury, although it never came to that. But there has to be a public interest defense, which doesn’t exist in US law now.
As things stand, I think the chance that this or any president will pardon Snowden is zero. They wouldn’t dare to challenge the intelligence community that remains so hostile to him. Nor does Snowden have any chance of a fair trial under the Espionage Act, any more than I did.
So nothing would be gained by him coming back and standing trial unless the Espionage Act were changed to permit that public interest defense. He’s said to me that he’s willing to come back and serve one, two or conceivably three years as a result of a plea bargain arranged beforehand, but they haven’t offered him one as far as I’m aware.
Film director and former Monty Python star
I think anyone helping to strengthen the workings of democracy should be rewarded. What Edward Snowden’s prize should be, I don’t know, perhaps something as unglamorous and hard to display on his mantelpiece as a presidential pardon. That would be nice.
Former director of the National Security Agency
What Edward Snowden did amounted to the greatest hemorrhaging of legitimate American secrets in the history of my nation.
If he wants to come home, and that’s his choice, I think he should face the full force of the law. Then he would be able to mount his defense. I would not be supportive of a public interest defense, however, because the American people declare some things to be legal and some things to be illegal, and don’t anoint the individual citizen to decide whether that’s a good or a bad idea.
If Snowden really claims that his actions amounted to genuine civil disobedience, he should go to some English language bookstore in Moscow and get a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Thoreau points out clearly that civil disobedience gets its moral authority by the willingness to suffer the penalties from disobeying a law, even if you think that law is unjust.
It would be incredibly unwise for this president to offer a pardon. President Obama and his successors are dependent on the 100,000-plus people inside the American intelligence community – the people Edward Snowden betrayed. For any president to align himself with Snowden’s approach in this controversy would carry an incredible cost to the spirit and morale of the intelligence community.
Executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a Black Lives Matter activist
Right now, Black Lives Matter activists protesting deadly police and other forms of state violence who have not been accused of any crime are being spied on with Stingray cellphone interceptors, tracked through biometric facial recognition software and license-plate readers, among other things. And, this isn’t limited to black activists.
Black people of all kinds know that since blacks were enslaved in the western hemisphere, to be black in America is to suffer persistent surveillance, to be watched as if being black was a spectator sport. How many black people right now are wearing electronic monitors? Are in databases we can’t get off? Are on the no-fly list? Are living in communities that are so over-policed they have been turned into open-air prisons?
This is why Edward Snowden must be pardoned – because the ability of black communities to organize for our collective liberation depends, in part, on whistleblowers like him. Black movements for peace and freedom demand that out of the darkness of empire, truth-tellers emerge to sound the alarm.
His revelations directly challenged the commonly held belief that media, phone and technology corporations must always give into state interests to target and harass the public. His bravery was a catalyst for the modern movement to defend democracy from both state and corporate overreach.
Professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
President Obama should provide Edward Snowden with a form of clemency that would permit him to return home to the United States – and still more appropriately in my view, remove all threats of criminal investigation as well.
Snowden should, in my opinion, be welcomed home with honors for his service to his country, and for his courage and integrity in the manner in which he performed this service. Apart from exceptional circumstances, citizens have every right to know what their government is doing, in particular what it is doing to them – in the present case, as Snowden revealed to us, keeping citizens under extensive and deeply intrusive surveillance.
No case has been made that relevant exceptional circumstances prevail. As well known, initial claims about prevention of terrorist actions collapsed under investigation, and no credible case has been made that the massive invasion of privacy, arguably in violation of constitutional rights, is warranted. Snowden made every effort to follow established procedures for bringing this crucial information to the general public. When these failed, he took the courageous and honorable step of transmitting the information through the medium of careful and highly reliable and experienced journalists, who, along with him, carefully vetted the material to ensure that no possible harm would be caused to individuals or to security.
Citizens of the United States – and indeed the world, considering the extraordinary range of the operations that have been revealed – are very much in Snowden’s debt. He should certainly not be punished in any way for the services that he has performed in the interests of democracy and civil rights. At the very least, he should be granted the full freedom to return home without fear of prosecution, and, I very much hope, to be welcomed with the respect that he richly deserves.
Singer-songwriter of Sonic Youth
From the perspective of someone born in the friendly ’50s in the USA, it has become normal to witness the uncovering of classified information over time …
Living in this day in age one would imagine that we – so connected now – could’ve found a way to share resources in a more socially responsible way. It’s absolutely perplexing to me to try to understand people involved in The Bilderberg Group, or see people, even friends and colleagues in places such as Los Angeles, spending hours and hours and hundreds of dollars bleaching their hair every week and purchasing absurdly priced designer clothing whilst in travels on the same tours through Europe and witness to young Syrian refugees or young disenfranchised children and kids in Detroit or Mexico City or even London on the streets, starved. There is an obvious and embarrassing injustice.
Simultaneously going to the cinema, there are sometimes advertisements/campaigns before the trailers to join the military – and there we are in the audience boo-ing! How dare these guys boast their heartless, imperialist activities in an effort to recruit young people. It’s sickening.
It’s difficult to talk about. It’s hard to even talk anymore. I listen more now. We listen to our Palestinian neighbors. We listen to the brave men and women and trans people fighting for basic rights. We seek out film festivals and documentary festivals where activist artists bravely tell stories to try to affect change in communities. We read everything Chelsea Manning has written. It inspires us. We try to make a more universal music of peace and love.
We are grateful for the courage and the conscience of the whistleblowers. Everywhere. From Angela Davis and the Black Panther party in the USA, Anna Mendelssohn (aka Grace Lake) and Stuart Christie and The Angry Brigade in the UK and today’s activist beauties such as Snowden, Manning, Assange … others. All I can say to them is thank you, and try to honour them in my music. They are heroes. They will be remembered, hopefully honored in their own lifetime.
Philosopher, civil rights activist and professor at Princeton University
In an age of pervasive mendacity and massive criminality my dear brother Edward Snowden exemplifies courage and integrity. I call for President Obama to give him a pardon owing to his public service for truth and democratic accountability.
Retired US army colonel and former chief of staff to US secretary of state Colin Powell
Frankly, I believe that were Snowden to return to the US, he would be treated badly; so much so, that even if he were fully pardoned – and could convince himself that that were truly so – he still would still be treated very badly.
That, sadly, is the nature of our country these days (some would argue we have always been thus and point to all manner of cases from the Salem witch trials to Alger Hiss, to the Rosenbergs, to the San Francisco 49ers quarterback now being shouted down for his refusals with respect to the US national anthem). Snowden’s actions, in many minds, constitute treason. I’m quite certain that most of the following of Donald Trump, for example, would want him in prison for life at best and hanged at worst.
After listening to Snowden on tape and video multiple times, I believe him to be a highly courageous and extremely ethical young man. He just might be the type who could weather such a storm and lead an otherwise productive life, like Daniel Ellsberg has for example. That might make him a martyr to some; but he will remain a villain to many others.
Am I for pardoning him? I would have to know a great deal more about the real impacts of his revelations – not the lies the government tells – before I could formulate my view. None of this truth is about to be forthcoming, so I really cannot make an informed judgment. It’s shameful because I don’t think any reasonable citizen can.
The essence of America’s precious freedom is the right to speak up. For people all over the world, especially in countries where whistleblowers’ only fate is death, Snowden has become a symbol of citizenship and moral courage. He has changed the way we feel about possibility of freedom.
He has taught us that in times of moral crisis, neutrality is not the side we want to be on. In pardoning Snowden, America strengthens itself and the ideas it stands for. Bring him home, honor him.
Bestselling novelist and former covert CIA operative
I wholeheartedly support a full presidential pardon for whistleblower Edward Snowden.
As a CIA officer 25 years ago, I knew the government classified too much information. Everyone knew it. But no one spoke up. And today the problem is far worse.
But because of Edward Snowden, we now know the head of US intelligence was lying to the Senate committee responsible for intelligence oversight. Programs concealed from the citizenry have been declared unconstitutional by federal courts. For the first time, the country has the minimal information necessary to grapple with the benefits and dangers of a surveillance apparatus far more vast and intrusive even than the one Senator Frank Church warned 40 years ago could lead to the eradication of privacy and the imposition of tyranny.
Surely in a democracy, the people have a right to know about the implementation of programs with risks as vast as that. Surely in a democracy, the people have aneed to know.
That today we do know, that today we are able to engage in this critical conversation about how properly to govern ourselves, is almost entirely due to the conscience and courage of one man: Edward Snowden. For his service to his country, he deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But a presidential pardon might be acknowledgment enough.
Philosopher and professor of political science at the CUNY Graduate Center
The charge of espionage against Snowden makes no sense. How can he be guilty as an agent of an enemy power, when his goal was to defend the people of the United States against secret and illegal actions by their own government?
A line between hero and traitor in this case is impossible to draw. And that is the deeper issue. What would a pardon of Edward Snowden signal? It would acknowledge the very principle of democratic rule. Nothing protects us from the abuses of executive power more effectively than their exposure by individual citizens who make them public and sound the alarm.
UK member of parliament and vice-chair of the Home Affairs Committee
From the start I thought that Edward Snowden had made a significant contribution in revealing the excesses and, in some instances, illegal surveillance carried out by US agencies.
If not for his actions, there would not have been the tightening up of such operations and we would never have known how even leaders of various democracies, such as Chancellor Merkel, had their phones tapped by the National Security Agency.
A half a century ago, Daniel Ellsberg was denounced in the US as a traitor for releasing the Pentagon Papers, which contained information concealed from the public about the war being waged against Vietnam. His actions have long since been vindicated, and there is a general consensus that what he did was absolutely right. Mr Ellsberg has strenuously defended Edward Snowden.
Green party member of the German Bundestag
When I met Edward Snowden in Moscow in October 2013, he told me that he would eventually like to live in a country where democracy and the rule of law are respected. I can think of two ways to make that happen.
First, President Obama could pardon Snowden at the end of his last term, in the way other outgoing presidents have done in the past. Second, Snowden could be awarded the Nobel peace prize, which would bestow him a certain degree of immunity in the US even if he isn’t pardoned: during the cold war, for example, we saw that Soviet Union was unwilling to prosecute people who had been awarded with such an internationally recognised honour.
The key to both of these solutions doesn’t lie in our hands, but there is something we all can do. Like Oliver Stone’s new film, we can try to help emphasise that there is another side to Snowden’s story than the one that prevails in the US media: that this is a man with a lot of integrity, who did a great merit for the civil rights and privacy for the mankind and who knew what he was doing when making a extremely risky decision.
Executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures provided powerful confirmation that the NSA was spying on the digital lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people, undermining digital security and attacking American companies. The leaks caused a sea change in policy and secrecy related to government spying that led to the first piece of legislation to rein in the NSA in over 30 years, reform to the secret Fisa court, and significant, long-overdue public releases of critical information by the government about its spying on innocent Americans as well as millions of others around the world.
The information he revealed was critical to starting a conversation about realigning a broken relationship between the intelligence community and the public. His motivations – and the impact of the leaks – were clearly to benefit the public and restore privacy and security to the internet.
The heavy price that the government seeks to exact – indicting him under the Espionage Act as if he had sold secrets to an enemy with no chance of explaining the broader public benefit – is wrong. Snowden’s behavior both before and after he brought this information to the media is that of a whistleblower who brought necessary public attention to a corrupt surveillance system still in need of further reform.
Former US senator for Colorado and member of the select committee on intelligence
Strong oversight of our intelligence agencies is essential so the American people trust what they are doing to keep us safe. That trust was shaken when Edward Snowden disclosed the disconcerting truths about US surveillance that fueled my years-long effort, alongside Senator Wyden, to end the dragnet, warrantless collection of Americans’ communication records. Although Snowden’s actions aided my push for reform, the fact remains that Snowden broke an oath he willingly took to protect our national security and classified secrets.
I do not believe the president should pardon Snowden. You can make the case that he did our nation a service, and that is why I believe he should return to the United States to make that argument in court and to the public.
US senator for Oregon
I’m not going to sit in judgment on pending criminal charges, though I certainly don’t think there should be a double standard where defenders of particular programs can disclose classified information get and off scot-free, while critics of those programs go to prison.
I think it’s very clear that mass surveillance was never going to end until the public found out about it. That’s why I spent years urging the Bush and Obama administrations to begin this discussion with the public. I wish this debate had started earlier, but I’m glad it’s happening now.
Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University
What if there hadn’t been a Snowden? A program that violated the principles that this country holds dear may have continued to this day. A program that an appellate court in New York found illegal, that was so egregious in terms of law and civil liberties, may have continued or even been expanded.
Edward Snowden was immensely important and will only become more important as time goes on. Not only did he show the American public what was being done in their name and to them, he ended a program which, upon examination, national security and legal experts concluded did not work.
When considering whether or not he deserves to be pardoned, the president should remember that even former attorney general Eric Holder said that Snowden performed a public service. His revelations were the tidal wave the nation needed to change its ways. The importance of what he did for the country outweighs the law that he violated and the just move is a pardon for Edward Snowden.
Owner of webmail service Lavabit that he shut down in 2013 rather than comply with US government orders to facilitate spying on Snowden
Snowden has stated he would be willing to stand and be judged by a jury of peers, but doesn’t believe he would receive a fair trail. I believe the conduct I encountered proves his contention. The individuals responsible for investigating, prosecuting and adjudicating his actions have lied in court, ignored conflicts of interest and irrevocably tainted the evidence against him. I believe it amounts to prosecutorial misconduct.
The charges against Snowden should be dismissed with prejudice; just like the case against Daniel Ellsberg was dismissed. To quote Judge Byrne, from his decision in 1973: “The totality of the circumstances of this case offend a sense of justice.”
On the other hand, I think asking President Obama to pardon him is a lost cause. Snowden revealed misconduct by the very person who is being asked to grant him the pardon. If we were to petition anyone, it should be Congress, or possibly the four presidential candidates (Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Green).
Law professor at Harvard Law School and former Democratic presidential candidate in 2016
There should be nothing less than a full pardon. The information that Snowden released to the public was critical: it made Americans aware of the way the law was being violated or at least subverted by unchecked government officials.
Then there was the manner in which he released the information. It was careful and limited, given the unresponsiveness he had experienced inside the NSA and from other branches of government.
Whistleblowing is an essential part of the architecture of checking government power. We’ve recognized the importance of whistleblowers in the past, and it’s entirely appropriate that Obama now recognizes the role that Snowden played in America in exposing the way in which extraordinary power was abused.
Former general counsel of the National Security Agency
I am not in the “pardon Snowden” camp. And the longer he stays away, the fewer people will be in that camp.
In the early days after his leaks, Snowden was a bit of a paradox – a plausible, intelligent commentator who seemed to have done something that was irresponsible at best and actively hostile to US national security at worst. We were just not sure what to make of him.
But the public benefits of those leaks were spent within a week or two, as they spurred a genuine debate about surveillance. And it turned out they could have been achieved by leaking three or four documents.
In the years since then, the massive flood unleashed by Snowden has been used for one purpose only – to harm US intelligence and national interests by exposing perfectly legitimate intelligence sources and methods.
As the debate wanes, the ongoing harm to the United States remains front and center. So the longer he stays away the more he becomes, in reality and in perception, simply one of Putin’s tools. And a willing tool to boot, one suspects. That fact naturally casts a new and unflattering light on his deeds in 2013.
Secretary-general of Amnesty International
Edward Snowden clearly acted in the public interest. He sparked one of the most important debates about government surveillance in decades, and brought about a global movement in defence of privacy in the digital age. Punishing him for this sends out the dangerous message that those who witness human rights violations behind closed doors should not speak out.
It is ironic that it is Snowden who is being treated like a spy when his act of courage drew attention to the fact that the US and UK governments were illegally spying on millions of people without their consent.
Additional reporting by Philip Oltermann in Berlin, and Mazin Sidahmed and Nicole Puglise in New York