After two years and 167,955 signatures, a petition to grant a full pardon to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden finally received an official response from the White House – a pretty resounding “thanks for trying, but no.”
The petition was posted on We the People, part of the White House website. Petitions with more than 100,000 signatures have been promised official responses by the Obama administration, with the petition to pardon Mr. Snowden reaching that tally on June 24, 2013.
Although public opinion has become somewhat more supportive of Snowden – and policy change has been enacted in response to his whistle-blowing on surveillance programs – the White House has continued to stress the illegality of his actions and play down the possibility of clemency.
“Instead of constructively addressing these issues, Mr. Snowden’s dangerous decision to steal and disclose classified information had severe consequences for the security of our country and the people who work day in and day out to protect it,” Lisa Monaco, the president's adviser on homeland security and counterterrorism, said in a statement.
Since 2013, Snowden has been residing in Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum. The former NSA contractor has portrayed himself as a civil liberties activist, but the Obama administration has countered by saying he should still be subject to America's laws.
“If he felt his actions were consistent with civil disobedience, then he should do what those who have taken issue with their own government do: Challenge it, speak out, engage in a constructive act of protest, and – importantly – accept the consequences of his actions,” Ms. Monaco said.
“He should come home to the United States, and be judged by a jury of his peers – not hide behind the cover of an authoritarian regime,” she added.
From his exile in Russia, Snowden has still been able to keep a prominent place in popular culture, with interviews on news programs as well as a notable appearance on John Oliver’s political satire television show. Earlier this year, "Citizenfour," a documentary about the NSA whistle-blower, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
In a Pew Research Center poll last year, 45 percent of respondents said that Snowden’s disclosures had served the public interest, while 43 percent said they had harmed it. However, a majority – 56 percent – said that Snowden should be the subject of a criminal case.
Snowden's supporters have suggested that if he returned back home, it is likely he would be charged under the Espionage Act, and he could be restricted in justifying his actions in court.
“If Edward Snowden comes back to the US to face trial, he likely will not be able to tell a jury why he did what he did, and what happened because of his actions,” wrote Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “Contrary to common sense, there is no public interest exception to the Espionage Act.”
Earlier this month, former Attorney General Eric Holder said in an interview with Yahoo News that the Snowden “actions spurred a necessary debate” about security and surveillance in America that prompted actions by the president and lawmakers.
He was referring to the USA Freedom Act, which was signed into law in June and reformed part of the Patriot Act by putting into place new limits on the bulk collection of metadata.
In a departure from his strong previous position against any legal leniency, Mr. Holder suggested that the Justice Department might now be open to a plea deal that could bring Snowden back stateside. “I certainly think there could be a basis for a resolution that everybody could ultimately be satisfied with. I think the possibility exists,” he said.
However, a spokeswoman for Loretta Lynch, Holder’s replacement as attorney general, deflated the notion that the Justice Department could offer Snowden an easier path back to the US.
“This is an ongoing case so I am not going to get into specific details but I can say our position regarding bringing Edward Snowden back to the United States to face charges has not changed,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.