US President Barack Obama and his advisers are not discussing clemency for Edward Snowden as they draw up a response to the backlash over US government surveillance, according to an administration official with knowledge of the deliberations.
Obama is set to announce limits on the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) sprawling surveillance programs as soon as next week. The president has already signaled that he favors some new limits on how telephone records are gathered and stored and creating a role for an independent civil liberties advocate at the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The former NSA contractor who triggered worldwide scrutiny of US spying is not part of the debate, said the official, who asked for anonymity to talk about internal discussions.
Any deal for Snowden risks sending a message that “all future whistle-blowers should just take everything and leave the country immediately — and that is not what we want them to do,” said Stewart Baker, a Washington lawyer who previously headed the US Department of Homeland Security’s policy directorate.
The US has charged Snowden with theft and espionage for leaking documents to the Guardian and Washington Post last year, which unveiled the breadth of the NSA’s collection of Internet and telephone records. The disclosures triggered protests from privacy advocates and technology companies in the US and from foreign leaders.
He fled the US, first to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum. In recent weeks, advocates for Snowden and the editorial page of the New York Times have called for leniency for him.
Even an NSA official who leads a task force on leaks, Richard Ledgett, said on CBS’s 60 Minutes program that amnesty or some leniency for Snowden would be “worth having a conversation about” if the US could be assured that any data he still has could be secured.
Ledgett’s outgoing boss, General Keith Alexander, has said he opposes making any deal.
The calls have touched off a debate over how to classify Snowden — as a whistle-blower, or as a spy — that goes to the heart of how he might be treated in the US court system if he ever were to return.
Whistle-blower advocacy group in Washington the Government Accountability Project’s Jesselyn Radack said “a pardon or amnesty would be appropriate” for Snowden.
“It is unjust to use the Espionage Act on someone who’s a whistle-blower and not a spy and has created a worldwide discussion that even the president has said needs to be had,” said Radack, who is one of Snowden’s legal advisers.
He has also gotten public support from one of the most famous US whistle-blowers, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked Pentagon documents about the US involvement in the Vietnam War to the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers more than 40 years ago.
The New York Times wrote in a Jan. 1 editorial that Snowden deserved “a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower.”
There are protections in the law for individuals classified as whistle-blowers, designed to allow people with information about government wrongdoing to come forward without fear of retaliation. The president and his aides have repeatedly rejected that characterization of Snowden.