In a big interview with the German media outlet Spiegel, President Obama was asked about his interest in pardoning Ed Snowden in response to the big campaign to get him pardoned. Obama’s response was that he could not, since Snowden has not been convicted yet:
ARD/SPIEGEL: Are you going to pardon Edward Snowden?
Obama: I can’t pardon somebody who hasn’t gone before a court and presented themselves, so that’s not something that I would comment on at this point. I think that Mr. Snowden raised some legitimate concerns. How he did it was something that did not follow the procedures and practices of our intelligence community. If everybody took the approach that I make my own decisions about these issues, then it would be very hard to have an organized government or any kind of national security system.
At the point at which Mr. Snowden wants to present himself before the legal authorities and make his arguments or have his lawyers make his arguments, then I think those issues come into play. Until that time, what I’ve tried to suggest — both to the American people, but also to the world — is that we do have to balance this issue of privacy and security. Those who pretend that there’s no balance that has to be struck and think we can take a 100-percent absolutist approach to protecting privacy don’t recognize that governments are going to be under an enormous burden to prevent the kinds of terrorist acts that not only harm individuals, but also can distort our society and our politics in very dangerous ways.
And those who think that security is the only thing and don’t care about privacy also have it wrong.
This is simply incorrect — as is known to anyone who remembers the fact that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon before he had been indicted.
And it appears that the President knows this. Because, as the Pardon Snowden campaign points out, Obama pardoned three Iranian Americans who had not yet stood trial. That happened this year. So for him to say it’s impossible to pardon someone who hasn’t gone before the court is simply, factually, historically wrong.
And there’s a Supreme Court ruling that makes this abundantly clear. 150 years ago, in the ruling on Ex Parte Garland, the Supreme Court stated:
The power of pardon conferred by the Constitution upon the President is unlimited except in cases of impeachment. It extends to every offence known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment. The power is not subject to legislative control.
A pardon reaches the punishment prescribed for an offence and the guilt of the offender. If granted before conviction, it prevents any of the penalties and disabilities consequent upon conviction from attaching; if granted after conviction, it removes the penalties and disabilities and restores him to all his civil rights. It gives him a new credit and capacity. There is only this limitation to its operation: it does not restore offices forfeited, or property of interests vested in others in consequence of the conviction and judgment.
Separately, the argument that if Snowden goes to court he can “make his arguments” is also wrong. And President Obama also knows this. The Espionage Act, under which Snowden is charged, does not allow any sort of whistleblower or public interest defense at all.
As Snowden’s lawyer, the ACLU’s Ben Wizner has explained, this isn’t hypothetical. When Daniel Ellsberg stood trial under the Espionage Act, his attorney asked him why he decided to leak the Pentagon Papers to journalists. The prosecution objected to the mere question, and the judge sustained the objection. No matter the egregiousness of the government’s actions, a whistleblower’s motivation has no place in an Espionage Act trial.
That means that Snowden wouldn’t be able to explain why he felt the public should know what the NSA was doing, he wouldn’t be able to point to the federal courts that ruled against the NSA in the aftermath of the disclosures, and he wouldn’t be able to cite subsequent advances to cybersecurity. His conviction and severe punishment would be a foregone conclusion.
There may be reasons why the President doesn’t wish to grant a pardon to Snowden, but his stated reasons are completely bogus.