Not long after the White House announced President Barack Obama had commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former army intelligence officer who leaked scores of classified documents, social media began buzzing about the future of another whistleblower – Edward Snowden.
Millions of supporters have called on Obama to pardon Snowden for leaking classified information documenting global internet surveillance programs run by the U.S. government, such as the PRISM program. The former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor has been living in exile in Moscow since 2013 and faces charges in the U.S. that could land him in prison for up to 30 years.
But White House officials were quick to shut down any hope that Snowden might be the next to receive clemency from Obama before he leaves office Friday.
“Mr. Snowden has not filed paperwork to seek clemency from this administration,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest Tuesday.
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Earnest was also quick to point out differences in Snowden’s and Manning’s cases, stating that the documents Manning disclosed were listed at “secret” level, not “classified” like the information Snowden leaked. Earnest added the information Snowden disclosed was “far more serious and far more dangerous” than what Manning leaked.
Just last week, the “Pardon Snowden” campaign handed the White House a petition with more than 1.1 million signatures calling for a pardon for the whistleblower. The petition was also signed by directors from the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.
The petition paints Snowden as a “human rights hero,” who ignited a global debate about government surveillance and policies.
“Since Snowden acted, all three branches of the U.S. government have worked to rein in the NSA’s powers. Technology companies have increased their use of encryption. The United Nations appointed a first-ever privacy watchdog. These are but a few examples of the reforms triggered by Snowden,” the petition reads.
“Given the history of government retaliation against NSA whistleblowers, recently underscored by the suspension of the agency’s inspector general, Snowden’s decision to work with responsible journalists to inform the public was wholly appropriate. He deserves better than a life in exile or a trial under the Espionage Act that would preclude him from raising his public service in defense.”
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But Snowden’s case is vastly different from Manning’s.
Manning was convicted in military court in 2013 of six violations of the Espionage Act and 14 other offences. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison, of which she has spent six years behind bars.
Known as Bradley Manning at the time of her 2010 arrest, Manning came out as transgender after being sentenced and LGBT rights groups took up her cause and lobbied the president to grant her clemency. She has attempted suicide twice while in prison.
Last November, she asked Obama to commute her sentence to time served and officials noted she expressed remorse for her actions.
Snowden, meanwhile, has not been formally charged with any offences, nor has he stood trial — nor does he need to stand trial in order to be issued a pardon.
Snowden maintains that he did right by citizens around the world in disclosing tens of thousands of classified details from the NSA.
“I think when people look at the calculations of benefit, it is clear that in the wake of 2013 the laws of our nation changed,” the whistleblower said in September when calling on Obama to offer him a pardon.
In an interview with CNN Tuesday, journalist Glenn Greenwald, who worked with Snowden to write the story about the NSA surveillance program for The Guardian, noted that Snowden is quite proud of what he did.
“I think its very unlikely that President Obama intends to commute Snowden’s sentence let alone pardon him because he doesn’t in any way say that what he did was wrong,” said Greenwald, on CNN’s AC360.
“He’s quite proud of what he did except for the fact that he should have done it earlier.”
On Wednesday, Russian authorities announced they had extended a residency permit for Snowden until 2020. Next year, he will qualify for a Russian passport.
— With files from The Associated Press