I deserve to be pardoned, says whistleblower

Take me home: Edward Snowden has been living in Moscow with his girlfriend for three years.

As a film of his story hits cinemas, the controversial Edward Snowden has publicly appealed to Barack Obama for a presidential pardon. What is this? And should it even exist?

To some, he is a hero. To others, a criminal. But as he sees it, Edward Snowden is just a regular guy who wants to go home.

Ever since he blew the whistle on the US government’s surveillance program, Snowden has lived in exile in Russia. If he returned to his homeland, he would face decades in prison under the Espionage Act. But ahead of the release of a new biopic of the man, he has called on President Obama to pardon him.

‘If not for [my] revelations, we would be worse off,’ Snowden told The Guardian. He argued that the president’s power to pardon exists ‘for the things that may seem unlawful… but when we look at them ethically, [are] necessary.’

This power has existed since the nation’s dawn. The president can apply it to anyone convicted of a federal crime. While it does not erase the conviction, a pardon restores certain rights to the recipient – and carries a symbolic weight.

The Founding Fathers intended the power to be used to correct miscarriages of justice. In practice, presidents have deployed it variously (some have even pardoned turkeys), and its function has gradually shifted. Today pardons generally serve to bestow a second chance on those deemed to deserve it, usually due to good behaviour.

But not always. A string of scandals has brought the system into disrepute. To take one example: disgraced financier Marc Rich was pardoned by Bill Clinton in 2001. Rich had donated huge sums to Clinton’s Democratic Party.

Keen to avoid misconduct, George W. Bush clarified the criteria for a pardon, and delegated the job of picking recipients to government lawyers. Obama has upheld this practice. Yet it too is open to criticism: according to a 2011 investigation by ProPublica, it favours the white and wealthy.

Snowden ticks both boxes. He is appealing for a pardon on ethical grounds. Yet his chances are slim: so far, Obama has been stingy with pardons and harsh on whistleblowers.

In any case, his plea has revived the debate: should presidential pardons exist at all?

Beg your pardon

Yes, say some. They safeguard against judicial errors, and send out the message that criminals should not be forever stigmatised as guilty. Today’s levels of scrutiny will make scandals of unjustified pardons very rare. Used properly, pardons help deserving citizens make something of themselves. This is the essence of the American Dream.

Even if it is never abused again, reply others, the system is wrong in principle. It gives one individual the power to override the entire judiciary. This is what dictators do. The Founding Fathers got the idea from the British monarchy, and it belongs to a past age. Presidential pardons have no place in a modern democracy.

You Decide

  1. Is Edward Snowden a hero?
  2. ‘Once a criminal, always a criminal,’ say some. Do you agree?


  1. Pair up. Think of an occasion when you did something wrong that you regret. Describe it to your partner, and explain why you think you deserve forgiveness. Does your partner agree?
  2. Watch the trailer for Snowden in Become An Expert. List five things it does to make Snowden’s story appealing, then write a paragraph on whether you want to see the film, and why.

Some People Say...

“Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Mahatma Gandhi

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not American. Are there pardons in my country?
The concept exists in many countries, albeit in different forms. In some countries, such as the UK, pardons are possible but very rare. In others, like Canada, they are granted by a special panel. The criteria vary hugely.
Why is Obama stingy with pardons?
There are several theories. Some believe he is wary of repeating predecessors’ mistakes. Others point out his generosity with commutations – he has shortened the sentences of hundreds of nonviolent offenders – and argue that this is taking up his administration’s resources.
So Snowden shouldn’t hold his breath?
Add the fact that Obama has brought eight whistleblower cases under the Espionage Act, more than all previous administrations combined, and it’s not looking good for Snowden.

Word Watch

Espionage Act
A controversial US law, originally passed in 1917 when the USA entered the first world war, mostly used today to prosecute those who leak classified information relating to national security to the media.
Snowden, directed by veteran political filmmaker Oliver Stone, has received mixed reviews.
Federal crime
A president cannot forgive civil offences. State-level crimes can be pardoned by the state governor.
Such as to vote, buy firearms and apply for some types of job.
Every year, shortly before Thanksgiving, the US president is ceremonially given a live turkey. It used to be cooked and eaten. But in 1989, George H.W. Bush symbolically pardoned the turkey, sparing its life. Every president since has followed his example.
Second chance
As well as pardons, presidents can grant amnesties, which are effectively pardons which apply to a whole group, and commutations, which reduce a prisoner’s sentence.
To date, Obama has only handed out 70 pardons. At the same stage in his presidency, George W. Bush had given more than twice as many. See Q & A.

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