Could Oliver Stone's Edward Snowden biopic result in a presidential pardon?

Oliver Stone's new biopic about the former NSA contractor and whistleblower is being accompanied by a push to get Edward Snowden pardoned by the Obama administration.

Marco Garcia/AP/File
Edward Snowden appears on a live video feed broadcast from Moscow at an event sponsored by ACLU Hawaii in Honolulu on Feb. 14, 2015.

A group of prominent human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are kicking off a campaign this week to ask President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who has been living in Russian exile since leaking a trove of internal documents in 2013.  

A signature drive on pardonsnowden.org, which is currently behind a password-protected login, will begin on Wednesday, two days before an Oliver Stone-directed biopic hits theaters, according to Motherboard. They coincide with what Mr. Snowden’s legal team says will be a last-ditch appeal for clemency from Obama. Three felony charges are outstanding against Snowden in connection with the leaks. 

"We're going to make a very strong case between now and the end of this administration that this is one of those rare cases for which the pardon power exists,” said Snowden lawyer Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, in a June interview with New York Magazine.

The film and campaign could chip away at public disapproval of his actions. In a 2015 poll, the latest survey to be carried out on the topic, 43 percent of US voters said they opposed a presidential pardon for Snowden, with only about one-third favoring it. 

But opinion is also deeply divided along generational lines. In a Pew Center poll from the previous year, more adults ages 49 or younger said they thought the leaks had served the public interest than said they had harmed it, including a full 57 percent of adults aged 18-29. Older respondents tended to feel the opposite, with some 53 percent of those 65 and over saying he had harmed the national interest – a near mirror image of the 18-29 crowd.

Mr. Stone has said he hopes his biopic, which takes a favorable view of Snowden's leaks, will help shift public opinion, according to The Guardian. And some studies show that the silver screen does do much to sway how audience perceive questions of politics. One 2015 study by University of Dayton professor Michelle Pautz found that about 25 percent of viewers changed their opinion about the government after watching either "Argo" or "Zero Dark Thirty," films dealing with the US intelligence community.

The film may also reach a lot of people who haven't made up their minds about Snowden's actions. In the latest poll, almost a quarter of US voters said they had no opinion on whether he should be pardoned by the president.

The Obama administration has not sounded particularly amenable to the idea of a pardon. In 2015, the White House responded to a petition for Snowden’s pardon by calling on him to "come home to the United States and be judged by a jury of peers," and accused the former NSA contractor of "running away from the consequences of his actions."

Last May, former attorney general Eric Holder seemed to indicate that the administration could favor leniency in sentencing, not full clemency, in comments describing the leaks as a "public service." But Mr. Holder added that Snowden had "harmed American interests" and echoed the White House’s earlier call for the former contractor to come home and face trial.

"I think there has to be a consequence for what he has done," he said, according to CNN. "But I think in deciding what an appropriate sentence should be, I think a judge could take into account the usefulness of having had that national debate."

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