During Donald Trump’s tenure, there seems to have been only one criterion for the granting of a presidential pardon: whether or not the offender was a friend of the president. An example of leniency was provided by the treatment of Joe Arpaio, who as “America’s toughest sheriff” exceeded the limits of what was considered legally permissible, but fought immigration as bitterly as Trump. That was a connection. Or Roger Stone, a friend and advisor who impeded a Senate investigation but managed to avoid his prison sentence thanks to Trump.
Edward Snowden is not one of Trump’s buddies. The former secret service worker disclosed the National Security Agency’s mania for data collection in 2013. Trump initially called him a traitor and a spy to be executed; but recently he has indicated that he could pardon Snowden as well. After all, many believed that Snowden was “not being treated fairly.”
It is very unlikely that Trump is going through a change of heart and is suddenly interested in the fate of Snowden, who is in exile in Russia, or in the unsettling ubiquity of surveillance technology or in the excessiveness of American espionage laws. Trump was never an unconditional hawk, but neither was he a friend of civil rights activists.
The motive for Trump’s sudden leniency is likely to be the same as always: Mercy for Snowden could mean an advantage for Trump himself. In the fight for his reelection, the president could win such diverse voters as libertarian Republicans or left-wing Democrats. Trump could show you that he is capable of greater greatness than his (hated) predecessor Barack Obama.
A pardon for Snowden would be a good and just thing, as he has sparked a debate about the limits of security and freedom. The changes to phone surveillance law that followed in the United States would never have happened without him. Snowden has also shown how extensively the NSA itself wiretaps politicians from friendly governments, and has thus also done parts of the world community a service. In the balance between harm and benefit, Snowden has done something useful and necessary. In the age of limitless surveillance, he has set a sign that society does not put up with everything.
And yet the Snowden case would not be satisfactorily resolved by a pardon alone, because the question of whether or not Snowden is a free person ultimately depends on arbitrariness, on the political calculation of a president who is above all self-interested. A legally correct clarification could only take place in a U.S. court. However, U.S. national security laws are so rigid that Snowden can hardly hope for a fair judgment.
Therefore, Congress urgently needs to pass a law to protect whistleblowers that acknowledges their moral dilemma, recognizes their achievement and provides them a path to freedom. Such laws are necessary worldwide, including in Europe. Whistleblowers sacrifice themselves for the general public; society owes them recognition. This question is too important to be left to the whims of an election campaigner.
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