Human rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy websites], are calling [HRW press release] on US President Barack Obama to pardon former National Security Agency (NSA) [official websites] contractor Edward Snowden [BBC profile] with a campaign launched [AI press release] on Wednesday. The Pardon Snowden campaign [advocacy website] seeks to gain supporters to pressure the current administration to pardon Snowden on the belief that he performed a public service by leaking classified information as well as the probability that he would not be able to receive a fair trial if prosecuted for his alleged crimes. The groups are encouraging individuals to sign their name to the petition on the website in order to create public backing for the pardon.
But the 1917 Espionage Act, under which Snowden is charged, makes no allowance for whether a leak is in the public interest or what the leaker’s motivations are. All that matters is whether the leaks were shared with someone unauthorized to receive them, regardless of whether that someone is a foreign enemy or a reputable journalist. When Daniel Ellsberg was charged under this antiquated law for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, a judge prevented Ellsberg from answering the question why he did it. Saying Snowden can explain his actions in court is simply wrong—under this law he can’t.
The groups are also raising the issue of whistle-blower protection and rights.
Snowden, a former NSA contractor and computer professional, became famous in 2013 for leaking classified information. His leak ultimately led to significant revelations about global mass surveillance programs employed by various governments, particularly the US. Last October the European Parliament voted to approve [JURIST report] a resolution encouraging its member countries not to extradite Snowden and called upon its member states to drop all criminal charges against him and offer him protection as an “international human rights defender.” The ACLU and other US human rights organizations challenged the surveillance by the NSA, although the US District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed one such case [JURIST report] last October. The question of Snowden’s guilt [JURIST op-ed] and the legitimacy of the charges against him have been debated and analyzed [JURIST news archive] widely in the U.S.