The calls for Edward Snowden to be pardoned by President Obama before Donald Trump takes office have been getting louder. But while many would like to see him given a get-out-of-jail-free card, there is a growing recognition that this simply might not happen.

The latest call in support of Snowden comes from the Church Committee (nothing to do with the church, rather the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, responsible for investigating illegal CIA activity in the 1970s). In a letter to the out-going president, 15 former members of the committee say that while it is open to debate whether Snowden’s actions “merit a pardon, they surely do counsel for leniency”.

The letter starts by calling for a way forward that will satisfy people on both sides of the argument — those who feel Snowden did wrong and needs to be punished, and those who feel he is a hero who exposed wrong-doing.

There is no question that Edward Snowden’s disclosures led to public awareness which stimulated reform. Whether or not these clear benefits to the country merit a pardon, they surely do counsel for leniency. In the American political system, bipartisan government reforms are generally regarded as the most legitimate and durable. Recently, however, our government has all but stopped making bipartisan reforms. There is one big exception: the surveillance reforms inspired by Edward Snowden’s revelations.

The letter points out that the government acted on the information supplied by Snowden when reforming surveillance law, suggesting that this is a reason for leniency to be considered. It says: ” Snowden’s documents also revealed the broad scope of NSA spying on foreigners including eavesdropping on close allies in addition to potential adversaries like Russia and China. While some have argued that leaking such ‘legal’ surveillance activities disqualifies Snowden from any mercy, President Barack Obama has acknowledged that stronger controls were necessary”.

The letter, which is addressed to US attorney general Loretta Lynch, as well as Obama, gives examples of other cases in which leniency has been granted to those who have leaked confidential information.

The committee’s view is made blindingly obvious: “America clearly did benefit from Snowden’s disclosures… Without Snowden, it would have been decades, if ever, until Americans learned what intelligence agencies acting in our name had been up to”.

Reference is made to the US’s delicate relationship with Russia, and the signatories suggest that Snowden himself probably doesn’t want to stay in Russia, and the US certainly doesn’t want him there. The letter concludes with a simple plea:

As the US relationship with Russian deteriorates, the risk to all interests involved increases. There is no question that Snowden broke the law. But previous cases in which others violated the same law suggest leniency. And, most importantly, Snowden actions were not for personal benefit, but were intended to spur reform. And they did so.

We therefore urge that the White House and the Justice Department negotiate a settlement with Edward Snowden of the charges against him that both sides can accept.

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