Just days before the film release of “Snowden,” ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden and his supporters are pushing to secure a presidential pardon that could be the last opportunity he has of getting back to US soil.
“This is about the best timing that you could get, with President Obama reaching the end of his presidency,” Brad Moss, a national security lawyer, told Business Insider. “And knowing that neither Trump or Clinton are going to be in any way amenable to the idea. You’ve got the movie coming out. This is his last chance.”
The pardon campaign kicked off this week with a petition from the American Civil Liberties Union calling for clemency, and the launch of a new website, PardonSnowden.org. The renewed public relations push follows a similar call of support coming from the editorial board of The New York Times.
But Moss, and even one of the journalists who interviewed Snowden in Hong Kong, think a pardon coming from Obama is nothing more than a remote possibility.
“Aside from Obama having a last minute ‘I just feel so guilty’ type of moment, I just can’t see him doing it,” Moss said. “I think the intelligence community would go ballistic.”
‘It’s a massive uphill battle’
On Monday, Snowden spoke to The Guardian’s Ewen McAskill about why he should be granted a pardon.
“I think when people look at the calculations of benefit, it is clear that in the wake of 2013 the laws of our nation changed,” Snowden said. “The [US] 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.”
He added: “If not for these disclosures, if not for these revelations, we would be worse off.”
In 2015, a US appeals court ruled the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata was unlawful — a clear vindication of one program Snowden had exposed. But there was far more in the leaked documents that would come after Snowden handed them over to journalists in Hong Kong in June 2013, many of which had nothing to do with constitutional rights’ violations against Americans.
“I think it’s a massive uphill battle, because what he’s done…he and his team are very good at this,” Moss said. “They selectively highlight a narrow set of issues that he exposed.”
“Section 215 surveillance and the Section 702 surveillance programs, those were legitimate issues to raise concerns about. You could argue that was legitimate whistle blowing,” he said, though Moss noted that Snowden didn’t go through the formal process for whistleblowers. However, his supporters have noted that, as a contractor, Snowden did not have the same protections as those inside the government.
“But the rest of what he exposed had nothing to do with any of that: Exposing how we spy on the Chinese. Exposing how we were gathering all the phone calls in Iraq and Afghanistan. That has nothing to do with whistle blowing,” Moss said. “That’s what [signals intelligence] and operations are all about — spying on foreign adversaries, and gathering data.”
Beyond this, there are also some big, unanswered questions in the Snowden saga, such as accounting for the number of documents he actually took, and how and why he ended up in Moscow, where he remains under asylum.
Retracing Snowden’s steps
Snowden arrived in Hong Kong from Hawaii on May 20, 2013, but he didn’t meet with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras until 11 days later.
What he was doing during this time is still an open question, though Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Snowden was meeting with his country’s diplomats. Snowden was also later spotted entering the “skyscraper that housed the Russian consulate on three occasions,” though this happened in early June, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Snowden frequently says critics should “ask the State Department” if they want to know how he ended up “stranded” in Russia, since his passport was revoked after he left Hong Kong. He says that he was headed to Latin America with Moscow as a layover.
But this begs the question: Wouldn’t a person who was “trained as a spy” know that the Kremlin would be very interested in keeping him around?
“Without a doubt, a person with inside knowledge like that, live and in the flesh, would be a very useful catch,” Mikhail Lyubimov, a 20-year veteran of the KGB, told Time. “He is carrying information of great importance.”
And despite Snowden’s claim that his passport was revoked while he was in the air headed to Moscow, his passport was voided by the US one day before he left Hong Kong. Still, he contends that he had no issues using it to leave China.
Meanwhile, as Snowden was working on his Hong Kong escape, the anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks was busy trying to help him with Julian Assange advising against him going to Latin America since “he would be physically safest in Russia.”
The organisation provided him an Ecuadorian travel document that would help get him out of Hong Kong, but since it was unsigned, it would never get him beyond Moscow. WikiLeaks has never explained this discrepancy, and no one is quite sure whether Snowden used his US passport or the bunk Ecuadorian travel document to escape.
Snowden may not have intended to get stuck in Moscow, but WikiLeaks certainly guided him that way.
The NSA source also denied taking any documents with him after he left the journalists on June 10, but this claim falls apart when examining an interview he gave to the South China Morning Post two days later which included a disclosure of internet addresses in China that the NSA was attempting to hack.
“I did not release them earlier because I don’t want to simply dump huge amounts of documents without regard to their content,” Snowden told SCMP’s Lana Lam over encrypted chat. “I have to screen everything before releasing it to journalists.”
He added that he would like to leak more documents later to “journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published.”
Will he get a pardon?
Regardless of the benefits that may have come from some of Snowden’s disclosures, it’s highly likely that Obama, who has been critical of Snowden in the past, will weigh the questionable circumstances of his flight from the US in his decision-making process.
“I give it no more than a 10% chance” of a pardon actually happening, said Moss.
White House spokesperson Josh Earnest on Tuesday reiterated Obama’s stance that Snowden should return to the US and face the charges against him.
“[Obama] will have an insane revolt from the intelligence community,” John Schindler, a former NSA analyst and frequent Snowden critic, told Business Insider. “This is political la-la-land.”
Snowden’s US lawyer, the ACLU’s Ben Wizner, did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider. Instead, he directed us to attend a press conference regarding their pardon campaign set for Wednesday in New York.
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