Attorney General William Barr said he would be ‘vehemently opposed’ to any attempt to pardon former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, after the president suggested he might consider it.
The attorney general’s comments in an interview with The Associated Press come days after President Donald Trump said he would ‘look at’ whether to pardon Snowden, who was charged under the Espionage Act in 2013 with disclosing details of highly classified government surveillance programs.
‘There are many, many people – it seems to be a split decision that many people think that he should be somehow treated differently, and other people think he did very bad things,’ Trump said of Snowden at a news conference on Saturday. ‘And I´m going to take a very good look at it.’
The Justice Department’s criminal complaint against him was dated just days after Snowden’s name first surfaced as the person who had leaked to the news media that the NSA, in classified surveillance programs, gathered telephone and Internet records to ferret out potential terror plots.
‘He was a traitor and the information he provided our adversaries greatly hurt the safety of the American people,’ Barr said. ‘He was peddling it around like a commercial merchant. We can´t tolerate that.’
Snowden remains in Russia to avoid prosecution even as the federal charges against him are pending.
It was unclear how serious Trump was, particularly given that years earlier he had denounced Snowden as a spy deserving of execution.
But Trump’s distrust of his own intelligence community has been a staple of his tenure, particularly because of its conclusion that Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential election on his behalf, and he has at times bemoaned the broad surveillance powers that the intelligence agencies have at their disposal.
Any effort to pardon Snowden would unquestionably infuriate senior intelligence officials, who say his disclosures caused extraordinary damage and will have repercussions for years to come.
In a memoir published last year, Snowden wrote that his seven years working for the NSA and CIA led him to conclude that the U.S. intelligence community had ‘hacked the Constitution’ and put everyone’s liberty at risk and that he had no choice but to turn to journalists to reveal it to the world.
‘I realized that I was crazy to have imagined that the Supreme Court, or Congress, or President Obama, seeking to distance his administration from President George W. Bush’s, would ever hold the IC legally responsible – for anything,’ he wrote, using an abbreviation for the intelligence community.
In 2013, Snowden shared thousands of classified documents with journalists, prompting the US government to charge him with two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and theft of government property.
The Hawaiian-based whistleblower worked for the CIA and NSA for several years and says he concluded that both agencies had ‘hacked the constitution’ with extensive government surveillance, putting everyone’s liberty at risk and forcing his hand to leak the information to the media.
Snowden’s decision to go public with the information set off a global debate about government surveillance, put in place by intelligence agencies in a perceived bid to avoid a similar attack to 9/11 from happening ever again.
He has been living in exile in Russia since he leaked the documents.
However, last year, Snowden said his ‘ultimate goal’ was actually to return home to the US.
Though he said any such return would be dependent on the US government offering him a fair trial, something he says officials have ‘refused to guarantee’.
‘But if I’m gonna spend the rest of my life in prison, the one bottom line demand that we have to agree to is that at least I get a fair trial.’
Snowden said a fair trial won’t be possible as the government won’t allow him to take a public interest defense.
‘I’m not asking for a parade. I’m not asking for a pardon. I’m not asking for a pass. What I’m asking for is a fair trial,’ he said.
Critics have repeatedly reminded him that by leaking the classified documents he broke both federal law and the oath he took when he joined the NSA.
Last year, he published an autobiography, titled Permanent Record.
The day after its publication, the US Department of Justice filed a two-count civil lawsuit against Snowden ‘alleging he had breached nondisclosure agreements signed with the U.S. federal government’.