Edward Snowden: A Hero, Not A Traitor

When Edward Snowden shared US intelligence documents with journalists in June 2013, he revealed the shocking extent of global mass surveillance. He showed how governments were secretly hoovering up huge chunks of our personal communications, including private emails, phone locations, web histories and so much more. All without our consent.

His courage changed the world. He sparked a global debate, changing laws and helping to protect our privacy. For the first time in 40 years, the USA passed laws to control government surveillance. Globally, technology companies including Apple and WhatsApp are now doing more to protect our personal information.

None of this would have happened without Edward. A former US Attorney General admitted that his revelations “performed a public service”.

How can I help?

  • Donate to the campaign to pardon Edward Snowden. Ed wants to come home. Help him do so with dignity.

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If I donate to the campaign, how will my money be spent?

This campaign is funded by people like you. Your donation will help pay for its costs. Amnesty does not accept any government funding for its campaigning work, and we only accept donations from companies that have been carefully vetted.

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This financial independence means we are free to criticise or applaud with objectivity and impartiality. We fund the fight against injustice – here in Ireland and overseas – and rely on contributions from people like you. When everyone is running and looking the other way, Amnesty International’s researchers and crisis teams are on the ground investigating human rights abuses.

Is it legal to donate to the pardon campaign?

Yes, absolutely!

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By being a Human Rights Defender, you are telling decision makers that you care about these issues . When Amnesty International speaks, we do so as the mouthpiece of over 7 million supporters worldwide – including over 18,000 Irish supporters. We are stronger with you by our side.


Who is Edward Snowden and what did he do?

In the early summer of 2013, Edward Joseph Snowden, then 29 years old, gave documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald documents from the National Security Agency, where he had been working as a contractor. Within days after Laura, Glenn, and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill first met with Snowden in Hong Kong, the Guardian and the Washington Post began publishing stories based on those documents.

The materials Snowden provided to journalists, which described a global surveillance system that had been rapidly expanding since 9/11, ultimately resulted in hundreds of news stories. U.S. federal courts have since determined that some of the surveillance agency activities were illegal, and Congress has acted to rein them in. Today, technology companies are making products that offer better security and privacy for ordinary people, and the internet is safer. President Obama has said the debate over surveillance has made the country stronger, and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has described what Snowden did as a public service.

Today Snowden is 33 years old and living in exile in Russia. He can’t return to the United States because he is facing charges under the World War One-era Espionage Act that treat him like a spy and don’t allow him to explain his actions to a court. If he returned to the U.S. now, he would likely be imprisoned for decades.

Why should I support this campaign?

Snowden has spent the past three years exiled in Russia. Over this period, it has become obvious that he performed an important public service on behalf of a citizenry that had been in the dark, and early suggestions that he worked in the service of a foreign government have been widely debunked. He stood up for us, and now we should stand up for him. Your support will help make that case to the U.S. government.

Who else supports Snowden?

The campaign is being supported by leading lawyers, policy experts, technologists, civil rights advocates, writers, cryptographers, and citizens who recognize the value of Snowden’s actions. This includes tech pioneers like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey; law scholars like Bruce Ackerman and Lawrence Lessig; former government officials like Timothy Edgar, a former director of the White House National Security Staff; and other public figures like George Soros, Joyce Carol Oates, Teju Cole, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and more.

Many of the world’s leading human rights groups – including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the ACLU – support the call for pardon. The New York Times editorial board says Snowden “has done his country a great service” and that “President Obama should tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr. Snowden’s vilification and give him an incentive to return home.” The Right Livelihood Award Foundation honoured him with the “Alternative Nobel Prize” in recognition of his “courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights.” The European Parliament passed a resolution calling on member states to “drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden, grant him protection and consequently prevent extradition or rendition by third parties, in recognition of his status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender.”

Is a pardon campaign like this legal?

Of course! There is a long tradition of petitioning government for redress. Pardon campaigns have always been part of that tradition.

What are the charges Edward faces, and the sentences they might carry?

On June 14, 2013, United States federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Snowden in the federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia, charging him with theft of government property and two counts of violating the Espionage Act through unauthorized communication of national defence information to an unauthorized person. Each of the three charges carries a maximum possible prison term of ten years. However, these were initial “placeholder” charges, and the government could add additional felony charges for each document Snowden provided to journalists. He might well face life in prison.

Why do you believe Snowden couldn't get a fair trial?

He faces felony charges under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that prohibits him from making his case in court. If he went to trial today, he would not be allowed to explain to a jury why he felt compelled to share the NSA documents with the public, nor would he be allowed to cite the historic legal and technological reforms that have occurred as a result. The government would not have to establish that the disclosures caused any harm; they would need to show only that Snowden gave the documents to people who weren’t authorized to see them – that is, the journalists. The law does not distinguish between selling secrets to a foreign enemy for profit and giving information to journalists in the public interest. His conviction and severe punishment would be a foregone conclusion.

What is Snowden doing now? Where is he, and how is he supporting himself?

He is in Moscow, where he has been since June 2013, when the U.S. cancelled his passport while he was en-route to Latin America from Hong Kong. He supports himself by giving talks remotely from Moscow to audiences around the globe. He donates part of his speaking fees to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, where he serves as a board member. Through FPF, he is working with teams of technologists to develop tools that will protect journalists and dissidents, particularly in authoritarian regimes.

Snowden cannot leave Russia without risking extradition to the United States. Although the European Parliament has called on member states not to extradite him, citing his contributions to human rights and the political nature of the charges against him, that proclamation is not binding. He can, however, move freely around Russia. He receives visits from family members and colleagues, and his long-time girlfriend lives with him.

What is the difference between a pardon, amnesty and clemency, and why are you asking for a pardon?

The terms are often used interchangeably, but “clemency” is an umbrella term for any executive action that reduces a sentence; it includes “pardon” and lesser commutations. “Amnesty” usually includes the erasure of any legal records. We are asking for a pardon for Snowden because it is the only relief ordinarily available for someone who hasn’t been prosecuted and sentenced, and also because it is the term most often used in this context.

Some people sympathize with Ed's good intentions, but still believe what he did was wrong. He swore an oath and then he broke it. Why should he get off without punishment?

Actually, the only oath that intelligence officers swear is to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It’s true that he signed the Standard Form 312, which is the classified-information nondisclosure agreement and is a civil contract. But Snowden believed that his obligation to the Constitution superseded his contract with the intelligence community.

Is Snowden involved in this campaign?

No. He is aware of it, of course, and is grateful that people care about him and want to help him. Ben Wizner, his attorney at the ACLU and part of the pardon campaign, keeps Snowden generally in the loop, but he has no formal or direct involvement in the campaign

Why did Snowden ultimately make the decision to leak documents?

In his own words:

• “Because of the access technical experts have to computer systems, I saw a lot of secret things and many of them were quite bad. I began to understand that what my government really does in the world is very different from what I’d always been taught.” – Edward Snowden
• “The stuff I saw really began to disturb me. I watched NSA tracking people’s internet activities as they typed. I became aware of just how invasive US surveillance capabilities had become. I realized the true breadth of this system. And almost nobody knew it was happening.” – Edward Snowden
• “I imagine everyone’s experience is different, but for me, there was no single moment. It was seeing a continuing litany of lies from senior officials to Congress – and therefore the American people – and the realization that that Congress, specifically the Gang of Eight, wholly supported the lies that compelled me to act.” – Edward Snowden
• “Seeing someone in the position of James Clapper – the director of national intelligence – baldly lying to the public without repercussion is the evidence of a subverted democracy. The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed.” – Edward Snowden
• “I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself. All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.” – Edward Snowden

Did Snowden go through internal channels to report his concerns?

In his own words:

• “I had reported these clearly problematic programs to more than 10 distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them.” – Edward Snowden

Some people say that what Snowden did was reckless and endangered innocent people. Is that true?

No. Snowden was extremely careful.
He didn’t publish a single document himself. Instead, he entrusted all publication decision to the journalists with whom he worked, with instructions that they consult with government officials before publication to minimize risk of harm. In fact, after Snowden transmitted the material to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman, he destroyed his own copy so it couldn’t fall into the wrong hands.

As Glenn Greenwald’s describes in No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State:

Snowden left it up to Laura and me to decide which stories should be reported, in what sequence, and how they would be presented. But on the first day, Snowden—as he did on many occasions both before and since—stressed how urgent it was that we vet all the material carefully. “I selected these documents based on what’s in the public interest,” he told us, “but I’m relying on you to use your journalistic judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people.” If for no other reason, Snowden knew that our ability to generate a real public debate depended on not allowing the US government any valid claims that we had endangered lives through publishing the documents.

He also stressed that it was vital to publish the documents journalistically — meaning working with the media and writing articles that provided the context for the materials, rather than just publishing them in bulk. That approach, he believed, would provide more legal protection, and, more important, would allow the public to process the revelations in a more orderly and rational way. “If I wanted the documents just put on the Internet en-masse, I could have done that myself,” he said. “I want you to make sure these stories are done, one by one, so that people can understand what they should know.” We all agreed that this framework would govern how we reported.

I've heard people say that Snowden gave information to the Chinese or Russian governments. Can you prove he didn't?

Snowden has never cooperated with any government other than the United States. There is not a shred of evidence to the contrary. In fact, even the NSA’s former deputy director, who was directly involved in the government’s leak investigation, has expressly stated that he does not believe Snowden has cooperated with either China or Russia.

What happened to the documents Snowden provided? Who did he give them and who has them now?

The documents were given to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman. Those three journalists have in turn shared them (on a limited basis) with other journalists and news organizations. Notably, Snowden made sure not to keep any copies of the materials himself, because he wanted to ensure that they never fell into the wrong hands.

What is the wrongdoing that Snowden exposed?

Snowden showed the world that surveillance technologies had outpaced democratic controls, that official oversight mechanisms (the courts and Congress) had comprehensively failed, and that our nation’s top intelligence officials had lied to the public about the activities they were undertaking in our name. He also revealed that the NSA and its partners had compromised people’s security by exploiting (rather than repairing) vulnerabilities in online security, in order to facilitate mass surveillance of entire populations.

Why didn't we know about it before Snowden exposed it?

The job of the intelligence community is to gather as much intelligence as it can. Governments set the balance between information-gathering and individual privacy protections, and in the wake of 9/11 the U.S. government pushed the intelligence community to aggressively expand its capabilities. In this case, the government not only withheld information from the public, but actively misled us about the scope of its surveillance programs.

What has changed since Snowden leaked the documents?

Snowden’s disclosures have led to long overdue reforms in both law and technology.

The public debate resulting from the disclosures engaged all three branches of the U.S. government. The president appointed experts to review the NSA’s surveillance programs, and they made dozens of recommendations for reform. After a federal court ruled that the call-tracking program he revealed was unconstitutional, Congress changed the law that authorized that program. That means that as a direct result of the disclosures, Congress reined in the government’s surveillance authorities for the first time in nearly four decades.

Additionally, as a result of his actions, the internet has grown more secure. Tech companies grew motivated by the outcry of users horrified to learn that the NSA had access to their private information and had systematically weakened encryption standards, making everyone who uses the internet more vulnerable to attack. As a result, the biggest companies in the world have invested in protecting their consumers. James Clapper has lamented that “As a result of the Snowden revelations, the onset of commercial encryption has accelerated by seven years.” We think this lament is actually cause for celebration.