Why Obama Can't Pardon Snowden

A three-year investigation found that key parts of Snowden's story do not check out.
A three-year investigation found that key parts of Edward Snowden's story do not check out.
01_20_Snowden_01 Source: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

On September 14, 2016, days before the premiere of Oliver Stone’s hagiographic movie Snowden, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International launched a well-funded campaign, with full-page ads in The New York Times, imploring President Barack Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, a former contract worker at the National Security Agency, for stealing a vast number of secret documents. “I think Oliver will do more for Snowden in two hours than his lawyers have been able to do in three years,” said Snowden’s ACLU lawyer, Ben Wizner.

Related: The Snowden report misses its mark

A president can pardon anyone from any crime for any reason, or no reason at all, but, as the hours tick away on his presidency, it is unimaginable that Obama, a former law lecturer, will ignore all he knows about what Snowden did and absolve him of his crimes.

This may surprise many people, in part because most of what they know about this case came from the mouth (and tweets) of a single source, Edward Snowden. Here is the sanitized version of his story: On May 20, 2013, just over month after he began working at the NSA Cryptologic Center in Hawaii, he failed to show up for work. He called in sick—but he wasn’t sick, he was running. He had flown to Hong Kong with a massive cache of stolen secrets. While in Hong Kong, he gave a very small portion of these documents to three handpicked journalists: Laura Poitras, a Berlin-based documentary filmmaker, Glenn Greenwald, a Brazil-based blogger, and Barton Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for The Washington Post. The exposes these journalists produced, based on those documents, dominated the headlines for weeks

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