Former NSA contractor and American fugitive Edward Snowden said overnight he deserves to be pardoned before President Obama leaves office, suggesting that his actions, while maybe against the letter of the law, changed the country for the better — an argument that has so far fallen on deaf ears at the White House.
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"Yes, there are laws on the books that say one thing, but that is perhaps why the pardon power exists — for the exceptions, for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally, when we look at them ethically, when we look at the results, it seems these were necessary things, these were vital things," Snowden told The Guardian in an interview from Moscow. "I think when people look at the calculations of benefit, it is clear in the wake of 2013 the laws of our nation changed. The Congress, the courts and the president all changed their policies as a result of these disclosures. At the same time, there has never been any public evidence that any individual came to harm as a result."
Snowden has been living in Russia since the summer of 2013, after he stole a huge trove of electronic documents from a National Security Agency office in Hawaii and leaked them to journalists, exposing the incredible breadth and power of the NSA's foreign and domestic surveillance capabilities. After the leak, Snowden — seen as a civil liberties hero by some and a traitor by others — was charged with espionage-related crimes.
"Mr. Snowden has been charged with serious crimes, and it's the policy of the [Obama] administration that Mr. Snowden should return to the United States and face those charges," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday. "He will, of course, be afforded due process, and there are mechanisms in our criminal justice system to ensure that he's treated fairly and consistent with the law."
Earnest said that the way Snowden chose to act "harmed our national security and put the American people at greater risk."
But the Snowden disclosures prompted the Obama White House to re-evaluate the way the NSA did its job, especially through the mass collection of communication metadata, and an expert panel created by the White House to study the issue came back with some sweeping suggested changes — many of which were implemented to better protect Americans' privacy.
Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism adviser and current ABC News consultant, was on the White House panel.
"What Mr. Snowden did is treason, was high crimes, and there is nothing in what we say that justifies what he did," Clarke said after the panel recommendations were made in December 2013. "Whether or not this panel would have been created anyway, I don't know, but I don't think anything that I've learned justifies the treasonous acts of Mr. Snowden."
In 2016 former Attorney General Eric Holder said that while Snowden's actions were "inappropriate and illegal" and harmed U.S. security, he performed a "public service" by prompting the national debate over privacy and security that followed.
Snowden told The Guardian that he wants to return to the U.S. "In the fullness of time, I think I will end up back home," he said.
Typically there are rather strict conditions an individual has to meet to petition for a pardon — including having been convicted of a crime — but in rare cases presidents have acted to pardon someone before any trial.