Obama Finishes Term Without Pardoning Snowden

If his Twitter account is any indication, it's unlikely President Trump will be inclined to help him, either

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jan 20, 2017 at 10:41 AM ET

Barack Obama has finished his presidency without granting clemency to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Snowden remains in Russia, which on Wednesday extended his asylum until 2020. In recent months, supporters had campaigned heavily for Obama to commute Snowden’s sentence, culminating with a million signatures being delivered to the President.

On Tuesday, Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who was sentenced to 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to violating the Espionage Act for handing a cache of documents to WikiLeaks. She is scheduled for release in May.

Snowden, a former National Security Agency analyst, was also charged with violating the Espionage Act, which does not permit a whistleblower defense, in 2013. He has cited Manning as an inspiration both in his decision to leak agency documents and as an example of what happens to leakers in the Obama administration. Snowden fled to Hong Kong to leak NSA documents to a handful of journalists in 2013, and had his passport revoked while on layover in a Moscow airport. He has remained in Russia ever since.

Both Manning and Snowden have massive online support networks who have called for Obama to commute their sentences, leading to a sentiment that his administration was conducted a “war on whistleblowers.” But Obama has repeatedly drawn a clear distinction between the two, especially in recent weeks.

Manning stayed in the U.S., pleaded guilty, and served a prison sentence. In commuting the sentences of 330 prisoners on Thursday, Obama largely singled out convicts who had already served significant time in prison. Snowden, by contrast, has remained in limbo, stuck in Russia since June of 2013. That’s become an awkward locale, considering the U.S. intelligence community’s joint assessment that the Kremlin ran an influence campaign in the 2016 presidential election.

Despite the fact that Snowden’s disclosures led to a series of NSA reforms in the form of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, the White House has also maintained that Snowden’s leak did more substantial damage to national security than Manning’s.

Manning, who is transgender, spent seven years in a men’s military prison, was at times denied access to hormone therapy, twice tried to commit suicide, and was repeatedly subjected to solitary confinement. In his final presidential press conference on Wednesday, Obama defended his decision to commute Manning’s sentence. “She took responsibility for her crime,” he said. “The sentence she received was very disproportionate to what other leakers had received.”

Snowden’s fate, besides that his asylum has been extended, is unclear. Unless he changes his mind, it seems unlikely President Donald Trump will be inclined to be kind to him. In a number of tweets, Trump has disparaged Snowden as a “traitor” — Snowden’s charges don’t include treason — and repeatedly insinuated he should be executed.

For his part, Snowden has praised Obama for releasing Manning, and said that if it had to be anyone, she was more deserving.