Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union launched a campaign Wednesday to push President Barack Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, the fugitive intelligence whistleblower living in Russia.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 14, 2016
High-profile lawyers and celebrities including writer Joyce Carol Oates and actor Martin Sheen have already signed the campaign's main prod, a petition at pardonsnowden.org that urges Obama to grant Snowden clemency before the president leaves office in January.
But the White House quickly said it had no intention of pardoning Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency who released thousands of classified documents in 2013 revealing the vast US surveillance put in place after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest disputed that Snowden was a whistleblower and said he would enjoy legal due process at a trial in the United States, where he faces up to 30 years in prison for espionage and theft of state secrets.
"His conduct put American lives at risk and it risked American national security. And that's why the policy of the Obama administration is that Mr. Snowden should return to the United States and face the very serious charges that he's facing," Earnest told reporters.
In July, the White House rejected an earlier petition to pardon Snowden that had garnered more than 160,000 signatures.
The 33-year-old fled with documents to Hong Kong, where he hid among Sri Lankan refugees in cramped tenements, and later received political asylum in Russia after the United States revoked his passport while he was en route to Ecuador.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that despite the White House's initial "not very positive reaction", "we think it will change with the public's response" to the campaign.
Bernie Sanders, who ran a leftist campaign for the Democratic Party nomination to succeed Obama, offered his support, writing on Twitter: "The interests of justice would be best served if our government granted Snowden some form of clemency."
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) September 14, 2016
Leaks morally 'necessary'
Snowden and his supporters argue that although he stole information, the revelations have benefited the public because they led to improved privacy protection laws.
In a video conference Wednesday, Snowden reiterated that he could not receive a fair trial in the United States under the Espionage Act.
"It does not permit a whistleblower defense," he said. "The law does not distinguish between those who give free sensitive information to journalists and spies who sell it to foreign powers."
Snowden offered an emotional statement today at our campaign launch. Watch it now. https://t.co/HRwuYf7GcJ
— Pardon Snowden (@PardonSnowden) September 14, 2016
Snowden in an interview with The Guardian published on Tuesday, told the British newspaper by video-link: "If not for these disclosures, if not for these revelations, we would be worse off."
"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," he said.