Why President Obama Can't Pardon Edward Snowden; A Three-Year Investigation Found That Key Parts of Snowden's Story Do Not Check Out

By Epstein, Edward Jay | Newsweek, January 20, 2017 | Go to article overview

Why President Obama Can't Pardon Edward Snowden; A Three-Year Investigation Found That Key Parts of Snowden's Story Do Not Check Out


Epstein, Edward Jay, Newsweek


Byline: Edward Jay Epstein

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. As the world reeled, Snowden vanished again, this time for 13 days, from June 11 to June 23, before turning up in Russia, which gave him sanctuary, protection and a global platform for his campaign to expose further NSA secrets, and which offered to protect him from prosecution for his crimes.

From Moscow, he repeatedly claimed he was an idealistic whistleblower who had been deliberately stranded in Russia by the Obama administration, which, he suggested, was hoping to demonize him because he had made the U.S. government look bad. He claimed the State Department had trapped him in Russia by revoking his passport while his plane was airborne on June 23. As for the documents he had taken, he insisted he had given all of them to the three journalists while in Hong Kong. He asserted that he had kept no copies and had no access to any of the purloined materials after he left Hong Kong.

I spent three years investigating Snowden's story for my book, How America Lost Its Secrets: Snowden, the Man and the Theft. I went to the places in Hawaii and Japan where Snowden worked for the NSA, the places he staged his anti-surveillance "crypto-parties" in Honolulu, and to Moscow, where I interviewed former Russian intelligence officers, Kremlin insiders and the lawyer who serves as Snowden's intermediary there. Aside from Oliver Stone--who paid this lawyer $1 million, supposedly for the rights to his novel--I am the only American journalist to interview him face-to-face. What I learned, bit by bit, from my many months of investigation, was that the key parts of Snowden's story, although endlessly repeated in the media as fact, do not check out.

Unlike me, President Obama did not have to go to Russia to learn the truth about Snowden's theft. He could just read the damage assessment report done by the NSA in 2013, and the more extensive one done by the Pentagon in 2014. Obama also appointed his own group to look into the Snowden affair, and he received the full classified report of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which was signed by Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat, as well as the eight other Democrats on the committee, and was entirely based on work of the intelligence services. …

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