- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
As some of you may know, I published an op-ed today in the Financial Times, arguing that President Barack Obama should stop trying to apprehend Edward Snowden and offer him a presidential pardon instead. I argue that Snowden acted from laudable motives — indeed, ones that are consistent with Obama’s own emphasis on the need for "We, the People" to defend individual liberty and conduct open, transparent government. And unlike Aldrich Ames, Jonathan Pollard, and other spies, Snowden didn’t sell his information to a foreign government. I also argue that Snowden did a public service by informing us of the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance and exposing the inadequate oversight of these programs. Indeed, history warns that sooner or later a vast, secret system of surveillance will eventually be used for selfish purposes. Lastly, I suggest that even if he broke the law, he is as deserving of pardon as Richard Nixon, the Iran-Contra miscreants, or some of the other convicted felons whom Obama has already spared.
There is another reason Obama might decide that a pardon is in order. If Snowden goes into exile overseas, he is likely to remain a polarizing figure and even a martyr for years to come. By contrast, if he is pardoned, he is unlikely to attract much attention in the future. He will never again have access to government secrets, and there is little reason to believe that his views on other subjects will attract that much attention. From a purely pragmatic point of view (which is Obama’s stock in trade), pardoning him might be the best way to put this incident behind us and move forward. Isn’t that the reason Obama & Co. also declined to prosecute any Bush-era officials for authorizing torture?