- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Lawyers and activists supportive of Edward Snowden launched a campaign Wednesday to urge President Obama to pardon the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked a massive cache of government secrets to media organizations.

Speaking via video conference call from Moscow, Mr. Snowden expressed thanks for the support he has received and said he longs to return to the United States but fears he will not be able to receive a fair trial as a result of the espionage charges he faces.

“Now, of course, I look forward to coming home, but I cannot support the persecution of those charged under an espionage act when they have committed no espionage,” Mr. Snowden said. “Those charged under it are silenced by law. They are prohibited from exercising their right to tell the jury why they acted in their belief to protect the Constitution or public interest.”

His comments were live-streamed during a press conference in New York.

Mr. Snowden said the Espionage Act of 1917, under which he has been charged, “does not distinguish between those who freely give critical information to journalists in the public interest or spies who sell it to a foreign power for their own [interest].”

The pardon campaign was launched by the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to gather petition signatures to pressure Mr. Obama to act before the end of his term.

“We believe this is precisely the time for the U.S. president to act,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. “Presidents normally take some of the more difficult actions of their years in office in the final months.”

Mr. Snowden leaked thousands of NSA documents to journalists in 2013 that revealed the U.S. government’s global surveillance capabilities, which ultimately led to reform of the programs following public outcry.

The 33-year-old computer technician went into hiding as the reports about the telephone record surveillance programs were published. Prosecutors later charged him with theft of government property and espionage, but Mr. Snowden has avoided prosecution by taking asylum in Russia.

Critics contend that Mr. Snowden’s actions endangered national security and the Obama administration, which has given no indication that it would be receptive to granting a pardon request despite having commuted the sentences of numerous criminal drug offenders in recent weeks.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said this year that Mr. Snowden’s leaks hobbled the government’s ability to monitor the communications of terrorism suspects by expediting the tech sector’s adoption of hard-to-crack encryption.

“As a result of the Snowden revelations, the onset of commercial encryption has accelerated by seven years,” Mr. Clapper told reporters during an April event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said this week that the president believes Mr. Snowden should return to the United States to account for his actions in court.

The Justice Department on Wednesday reaffirmed that stance.

“It remains our position that Mr. Snowden should return to the United States and face the charges filed against him. If he does, he will be accorded full due process and protections,” said Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi. “It is important to remember Mr. Snowden is not a whistleblower. He is accused of leaking classified information, and there is no question his actions have inflicted serious harms on our national security.”

Despite what appears to be a slim likelihood that Mr. Obama would pardon Mr. Snowden, his supporters believe a groundswell of public support could change that.

“We do think there is a chance,” Mr. Romero said. “It will largely depend on public response.”

Mr. Snowden’s supporters say his actions brought about awareness of secret government activities and should be applauded, not criminalized.

“Edward Snowden’s actions sparked one of the most important debates about government surveillance in decades and brought about extraordinary reforms that continue to benefit our privacy,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general. “Punishing him for this sends out the dangerous message that those who witness human rights violations behind closed doors should not speak out.”

The pardon campaign was launched just days before the release of Oliver Stone’s theatrical film about Mr. Snowden. Members of the campaign said the timing wasn’t intentional, but Mr. Snowden said he hopes the film will attract attention to issues that lawmakers are still debating, including limits on government surveillance.

“I love my country. I love my family, and I have dedicated my life to both of them,” Mr. Snowden said Wednesday. “I’m glad for the decisions that I made, and I’m thankful for all of you who are supporting me.”

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