On his final day in office, President Donald Trump issued 73 pardons and 70 commutations. Conspicuously, one high-profile name was not on that list: Edward Snowden, the former Central Intelligence Agency employee and contractor for the National Security Agency who fled to Russia after illegally disclosing troves of classified material in 2013.
Snowden’s disclosures revealed the NSA had tapped into millions of Americans’ phone records as part of an intelligence gathering operation. Snowden, 37, faces federal criminal charges for his alleged theft of government property and unauthorized communication of national defense and classified information. Each of the two espionage charges against him reportedly carries a 10-year prison term.
Calling Trump a “simpering creature,” Snowden took to Twitter on Wednesday to address his failure to glean a last-minute presidential pardon.
“I am not at all disappointed to go unpardoned by a man who has never known a love he had not paid for,” Snowden tweeted, referring to the outgoing president.
I am not at all disappointed to go unpardoned by a man who has never known a love he had not paid for. But what supporters of his remain must never forgive that this simpering creature failed to pardon truth-tellers in far more desperate circumstances:https://t.co/luyYyBViYE
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) January 20, 2021
To some Americans, Snowden is seen as a traitor. “While I am sorry for Snowden’s family, it would have been a serious mistake for Trump to grant him a pardon,” Stanley Sloan, who served as the CIA’s deputy national intelligence officer for Europe, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
For others, however, Snowden is a civil liberties hero who stood up against government overreach. Along this vein, some Washington lawmakers pushed for Trump to grant Snowden a pardon during his final days in office.
“Snowden should be pardoned,” Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, wrote in The Federalist in December. Regarding Trump, Paul added: “And this president, who distinguished himself as an opponent of the Deep State on issues of war and spying on Americans, should be the one to do it.”
Over the summer Trump suggested he was considering a Snowden pardon. “I’m going to take a look at that very strongly,” Trump said in August regarding Snowden’s case.
“It seems to be a split decision,” Trump added. “Many people think he should be somehow treated differently, and other people think he did very bad things.”
Lawmakers and intelligence officials who strongly opposed a potential Snowden pardon said such a move would set a dangerous precedent by erroneously conflating an act of criminal espionage with a legitimate whistleblower disclosure.
“For his entire public life since leaking Snowden has proclaimed noble intentions but his actions have failed to live up to his claims,” Michael van Landingham, a former CIA intelligence analyst and founder of the firm Active Measures LLC, said. “In my opinion, Snowden’s failure to secure a pardon displays the contradictions in his self-styled image as a whistleblower.”
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming called Snowden a “traitor” who was “responsible for the largest and most damaging release of classified info in US history.”
“[Snowden] handed over US secrets to Russian and Chinese intelligence putting our troops and our nation at risk. Pardoning him would be unconscionable,” Cheney tweeted on Dec. 14.
On Aug. 1, 2014, Snowden received a Russian temporary residence permit — he’s since described his presence in Russia as “exile.” The Russian government awarded Snowden an “open-ended” residence permit in October. In an interview on CBS last year, Snowden said he would consider returning to the US if guaranteed a “fair trial.”
“If [Snowden] is willing to face the consequences of his actions and admit them as a pardon requires, he should return to the US, take responsibility for them at trial,” van Landingham told Coffee or Die Magazine. “Instead, he’s chosen to hide out in Moscow — protected by a government that poisons and jails its opponents — and seek a Hail Mary pardon while applying for Russian citizenship. Another duplicitous action that shows his real character.”
Snowden’s legal woes compounded in September after a federal court ruled that he owes the US government more than $5.2 million because he didn’t allow the CIA and the NSA to review his book, Permanent Record, before its publication. Having signed nondisclosure agreements with both intelligence agencies, Snowden was required to submit his book to a prepublication review process to scrub the manuscript of any classified information.
In a Dec. 16 tweet, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote that Snowden has “American blood on his hands and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
To those urging a pardon of Edward Snowden:
You are suggesting President @realDonaldTrump pardon a traitor.
Edward Snowden is NOT a victim.
Snowden has American blood on his hands and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. https://t.co/GyiUK9U0Gq
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 15, 2020
Counterintelligence officials have warned for years about the negative impact of Snowden’s criminal release of classified material. According to multiple news reports, Snowden’s leaks endangered American personnel and facilities around the world, thwarted intelligence collection operations, exposed intelligence gathering tools and methods, and destabilized US partnerships abroad.
Most intelligence experts and officials say Snowden’s leaks were an unequivocal disaster for the US intelligence community. Some say it may take years to fully understand the overall impact of his disclosures on US national security. Above all, many of the classified intelligence collection techniques and technologies Snowden revealed to the world are now known to America’s adversaries — and are therefore defunct.
“The unconstrained disclosure of those capabilities means that as adversaries see them and recognize, hey, I might be vulnerable to this, they move away from that,” Richard Ledgett, who was then deputy director of the National Security Agency, said during the TED Talks 2014 Conference.
Ledgett continued: “The net effect of that is that our people, who are overseas in dangerous places, whether they’re diplomats or military, and our allies who are in similar situations, are at greater risk because we don’t see the threats that are coming their way.”
Others argue, however, that Snowden’s revelations from 2013 are dated and no longer vital to US national security.
“The mainstream view among intelligence professionals is that every day and every year that has gone by has lessened the value and importance of the Snowden archives,” Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner, told The Associated Press in 2018.
After Snowden’s classified disclosures in 2013, former President Barack Obama appointed an independent group of experts to review the NSA’s controversial program to collect “metadata” on US citizens. “It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said in August 2013. “The American people need to have confidence in them as well.”
Thus, some say that, in the long run, the overall good done by Snowden’s actions has outweighed their negative impacts on intelligence agencies’ operations.
“As of today, the case has never been stronger that Edward Snowden deserves a pardon from President Trump. I would support a pardon for Edward Snowden,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, said on his podcast in September. “If it were not for Snowden, we might not know today that our own government was engaged in an activity that now a federal appellate court has deemed illegal.”
“Snowden is no traitor,” Paul wrote in The Federalist. “He is a true whistleblower who was trying to expose those like [James Clapper, President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence] who used Deep State powers in secret to go after Americans.”
A gray zone also exists between Snowden’s defenders and critics. For instance, some intelligence professionals condemn Snowden’s illegal actions, but also acknowledge that his revelations revealed significant overreach by the NSA and spurred necessary reforms.
“There is a big difference between being a traitor to an organization, albeit a state agency, and a traitor to one’s country,” Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
“If I were in power, I’m not sure I would grant him a pardon,” Sageman added. “I would want for [Snowden] to come back and argue his own case, keeping my mind open to see whether or not he was a traitor. It is clear that he violated the law, but if he did it for the people of the United States … this may justify his action. If not, he needs to live with the consequences of his actions.”