US President Donald Trump says he is considering a pardon for Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor – now living in Russia – whose spectacular leaks shook the US intelligence community in 2013.
The Republican president’s comments followed an interview Mr Trump gave to the New York Post this week in which he said of Mr Snowden that “there are a lot of people that think that he is not being treated fairly” by US law enforcement.
“I’m going to start looking at it,” Mr Trump told reporters about a possible pardon, speaking at a news conference at his Bedminster, New Jersey golf club, on Saturday.
US authorities for years have wanted Mr Snowden returned to the United States to face a criminal trial on espionage charges brought in 2013.
The list of people who have called for @Snowden to be pardoned is long and varied. No matter your feelings on Trump, a Snowden pardon would be a major win for those who care about fighting back against mass surveillance in the digital age. https://t.co/pmgucTKr8Y
— Freedom of the Press (@FreedomofPress) August 14, 2020
Mr Snowden fled the US and was given asylum in Russia after he leaked a trove of secret files in 2013 to news organisations that revealed vast domestic and international surveillance operations carried out by the NSA.
Mr Snowden’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told RIA news agency the US should not simply pardon him but should drop all possible prosecutions against Mr Snowden as he had not committed any crimes.
“He was acting not only in the interest of the American citizens, but in the interest of all the humankind,” Mr Kucherena said.
Mr Trump’s softening stance toward Mr Snowden represents a sharp reversal.
Shortly after the leaks, Mr Trump expressed hostility toward Snowden, calling him “a spy who should be executed”.
Q: "Do you want to give Edward Snowden a pardon and bring him back?"
President Trump: "I'm going to look at it." pic.twitter.com/Lb75QVaGVb
— The Hill (@thehill) August 15, 2020
Mr Trump said on Saturday he though Americans on the political left and the right were divided on Mr Snowden.
“It seems to be a split decision,” Mr Trump told reporters.
“Many people think he should be somehow treated differently. And other people think he did very bad things.”
Some civil libertarians have praised Mr Snowden for revealing the extraordinary scope of America’s digital espionage operations, including domestic spying programs that senior US officials had publicly insisted did not exist.
But such a move would horrify many in the US intelligence community, some of whose most important secrets were exposed.
I wonder who has Trump's ear who is pitching this — and why. (Hoping his first name isn't "Vladimir.")https://t.co/F8ffvChgBd
— Orin Kerr (@OrinKerr) August 16, 2020
Mr Trump has harshly criticised past leaders of the US intelligence community and FBI, and on Thursday took aim at the bureau’s current director Christopher Wray, his own appointee.
Mr Trump’s use of his executive clemency powers including pardons has often benefited allies and well-connected political figures.
Last month he commuted the sentence of his long-time friend and adviser Roger Stone, sparing him from prison after he was convicted of lying under oath to lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US election.