US President Donald Trump is “very strongly” looking at pardoning whistleblower Edward Snowden, he told the New York Post on August 13. This is significant volte-face by Trump who has previously repeatedly called Snowden a “traitor”. On August 17, Trump said that he would pardon “someone very important” on Tuesday but it wouldn’t be Snowden.

“There are a lot of people that think that he is not being treated fairly. I mean, I hear that,” Trump reportedly said. He further said that the Department of Justice was looking to extradite him and that that was “certainly something I could look at”. “Many people are on his side, I will say that. I don’t know him, never met him. But many people are on his side,” Trump said. He said that he had “heard it both ways” — that he is a traitor and that is being persecuted.

In a November 2016 interview with Der Spiegel, a few days after Trump won the electoral college vote to become the presidents, Obama had said, “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.” He had acknowledged that Snowden had “raised some legitimate concerns” but criticised his approach and adopted the age-old binary between privacy and security.

Trump was talking to the Post in the context of President Barack Obama’s alleged spying on his 2016 campaign. In January 2020, the Department of Justice had submitted before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there was not enough evidence to legally justify the continued surveillance of former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page by FBI in 2017. That submission, expectedly, became a clarion call for conservative critics of the FBI and the Mueller investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Trump’s comments divide Republicans and Democrats

After Trump’s comments were made public, multiple Republican elected officials reiterated their claims that Snowden is a traitor. Lindsey Graham, Republican Senator from South Carolina, said that Snowden “should be tried for his crimes against our country” and said that those who were suggesting pardoning him were “doing a great disservice” to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Liz Cheney, a Republican representative from Wyoming, tweeted that pardoning Snowden would be “unconscionable” and that he had handed over American secrets to Russian and Chinese intelligence, “putting our troops at risk”. Snowden called her tweet “the museum of the confidently incorrect”.

However, Republican Senator Rand Paul supported Snowden’s pardon as it “revealed that Trump-haters Clapper and Comey among others were illegally spying on Americans”.

Susan Rice, a Democratic policy advisor who was Obama’s national security advisor from 2013 to 2017, tweeted her criticism of Trump’s new stance.

A number of civil rights organisations also reiterated their calls for pardoning Snowden. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) voiced their support for pardoning Snowden and called him a “patriot”. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted, “Trump is right. Snowden did us an enormous service by spotlighting surveillance threats to our privacy. He shouldn’t be prosecuted.”

‘Traitor’, ‘liar’, ‘fraud’: Trump’s favourite epithets for Snowden

Trump conceded to the Post that he is “not that aware of the Snowden situation”. This is a significant reversal of stance from Trump, who, in June 2013, had tweeted, “All I can say is that if I were President, Snowden would have already been returned to the U.S. (by their fastest jet) and with an apology!” He tweeted about Snowden 44 times between June 2013 and June 2014.

Trump has previously called Snowden “traitor”, “terrible traitor”, “liar” and “fraud“. By the time charges against Snowden were made public on June 21, Snowden had already been granted asylum by Russia. Trump had called it a “sad day for America” and that “Putin is laughing at Obama”. He called Snowden a “spy” who, “in the old days”, would have been executed. He accused Snowden of giving “serious information to China and Russia”.

In May 2014, apart from calling Snowden a “traitor”, a “disgrace”, a “coward” and “no hero”, Trump said that he “should come back & face justice”. He also called him a “piece of human garbage”. In fact, throughout 2013 and 2014, Trump repeated his calls to bring Snowden back to the US so that he could stand trial.

Snowden blew the whistle on USA’s extensive surveillance apparatus

Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, became the most famous whistleblower in the world in 2013 after he leaked over 1.7 million classified NSA documents to journalists that blew the lid off the United States’ extensive surveillance programmes, including PRISM. As per the documents, PRISM allowed intelligence agencies court-approved direct access to Americans’ Yahoo and Google via their servers.. The documents also revealed the details of the cooperation on global surveillance programmes between four of the Five Eyes alliance partners — the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia.

The documents also exposed how the US had been spying on its close allies, including the UK, Germany, Spain, Mexico, and non-allies such as China, along with world leaders including Angela Merkel.

In June 2013, the Department of Justice charged Snowden under the Espionage Act of 1917 and of theft of government property. Russia had them granted him asylum.