President Donald Trump said Saturday that he’s considering a pardon for former national security specialist Edward Snowden, who has been trapped for years in Russia, evading charges of leaking information on a National Security Agency cellphone meta-data collection program called PRISM.
Snowden leaked the information to American journalists, using members of WikiLeaks’ team as go-betweens, back in 2013, revealing that the NSA was collecting “meta-data” – location, duration, and other information not specific to calls themselves – from Americans’ cellphones, creating a massive database designed to reveal terror threats.
The PRISM program never really yielded results. According to most recent reports, although the Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, has routinely re-authorized the program, the bulk data collection and analysis program was too cumbersome to be valuable. Back in 2019, the program fell into disuse according to The New York Times and, at this point, appears to be out of operation.
Trump told reporters late last week that “there are a lot of people that think that [Snowden] is not being treated fairly,” and followed up on Saturday with comments suggesting that he and his administration are considering a pardon – though Snowden technically has not yet faced charges.
“I’m going to start looking at it,” Trump said.
“It seems to be a split decision,” Trump added, explaining the divide on Snowden’s actions. “Many people think he should be somehow treated differently. And other people think he did very bad things.”
That’s a dramatic change from Trump’s 2013 position on the subject when he tweeted that Snowden was “a spy who should be executed.”
“Snowden fled the United States and was given asylum in Russia after he leaked a trove of secret files in 2013 to news organizations that revealed vast domestic and international surveillance operations carried out by the NSA,” Reuters reports. “Snowden’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told RIA news agency the United States should not simply pardon him but should drop all possible prosecutions against Snowden as he had not committed any crimes.”
The argument has long been that Snowden’s leak revealed a program that American citizens should have known about, regardless of the government’s argument for secrecy.
Snowden’s situation has taken on a different character since 2016, when, on his way out of office, then-President Barack Obama commuted a near-life sentence levied against leaker Chelsea Manning, who broke into a classified U.S. military database and stole hundreds of documents and videos recorded during the war in Iraq in an alleged attempt to punish the Army for failing its LGBT members.
Manning ultimately sent the materials to WikiLeaks who published them.
Snowden’s supporters argue that, unlike Manning, Snowden was looking to help the American people, not hurt the country’s diplomatic position abroad.
Snowden’s case, however, is complicated by a memoir he published last year, which the Department of Justice says violated a non-disclosure agreement Snowden signed when he agreed to work on NSA projects.