No one will ever accuse President Donald Trump of being overly careful in his exercise of his pardon power.
So, it makes sense that advocates of Edward Snowden, the man responsible for the most damaging classified leak in U.S. history, are mounting a last-minute push to get the president who pardoned Sheriff Joe and Roger Stone to issue his most outrageous and indefensible pardon yet.
It’s a transpartisan alliance. Glenn Greenwald, Snowden’s journalistic partner and foremost advocate, has, of course, been banging the drum. Rose McGowan has urged Trump on Twitter to be “punk as f---” and pardon Snowden in defiance of “DC Cult Leaders aka politicians” who “hate truth.” Renegade Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is on board, as are libertarian Trump loyalists Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Matt Gaetz.
As Trump’s presidency winds down and his clout on Capitol Hill diminishes, his sweeping power to grant clemency will be even more alluring to him, and he said over the summer that he’s considering a Snowden pardon.
If the pardon can be sold to Trump as a way to stick it to the deep state on his way out the door, anything is possible. Why go to the trouble of firing Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel or Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray if he can signal his contempt for their ilk by bringing in from the cold a bete noire of the U.S. national security apparatus with a stroke of his pen?
Working for a National Security Agency contractor, Snowden stole massive amounts of classified material and began sharing it with journalists in 2013. When the Justice Department filed criminal charges, he fled to Russia, which kindly provided him asylum and recently permanent residency.
Snowden is a self-styled whistleblower. He says he was motivated by his constitutional qualms about an NSA bulk data collection program and his disgust with official deceptions about the program.
None of this holds up. If Snowden wanted to be a genuine whistleblower, he could have pursued concerns about the NSA program through lawful avenues instead of fleeing the country and purloining so many documents that authorities still can’t be sure how much he stole.
The Snowden disclosures were much more wide-ranging than the NSA program, in fact so wide-ranging that it’s almost impossible to keep track. As Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith has asked, why did Snowden’s devotion to the Constitution require him to disclose details of how we spy on other countries, how we cooperate with Sweden and Norway to spy on Russia, or an NSA program called MasterMind to respond to cyberattacks?
None of these programs or actions raise any constitutional issues whatsoever. Exposing them makes sense only as sheer nihilism — i.e., Snowden was in a position to steal the information, so why not take it and disclose it? — or as a calculated act of hostility to U.S. national security policy as such.
Snowden’s defenders say not to worry, that Snowden and the journalists reporting on his documents have been careful not to disclose anything needlessly damaging to the U.S. and its allies. But there is no reason that the responsibility for protecting sensitive information involving no crimes or government misconduct should, via Snowden’s theft, have been transferred from U.S. officials to assorted reporters and editors.
It’s also naive to believe that Snowden was allowed to make a home in Vladimir Putin’s Russia without the government exploiting his trove of secrets.
The president’s pardon power is plenary, but that doesn’t mean it should be wielded with no standards whatsoever. Traditionally, the Justice Department looks for contrition when reviewing possible exercises of clemency.
Not only does Snowden exhibit none, we don’t even know the full scope of his offense, and he remains a fugitive through the good offices of an enemy of the United States.
Surely, Trump will be bombarded with bad ideas in the final days of his presidency, but pardoning Edward Snowden has to rank among the worst.
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.
Editor’s note: Leonard Pitts is on vacation. His column will resume in January.