Dear Candidate Clinton: Pardon Edward Snowden

06/17/2015 02:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

Hillary Clinton needs support from the progressive left. She may not need it to win the Democratic nomination for president, but she needs it to revive her uninspiring candidacy, buttress her sagging poll numbers, and, above all, prevail in the general election.

Clinton's campaign kickoff rally Saturday at New York's Roosevelt Island was designed in large part to secure such endorsement. In a carefully orchestrated speech delivered before an estimated 5,500 flag-waving admirers, she promised to sponsor a bucket list of dearly held liberal policy initiatives, including universal prekindergarten, paid family leave, equal pay for women, college affordability and tax incentives for corporations that offer employee profit-sharing benefits.

She also announced she would push for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision, and that she would work to establish universal, automatic voter registration and early voting throughout the country.

As invariably occurs with presidential balloting, the vexing question for progressives as Clinton and her big-money donors ultimately outspend and exhaust Bernie Sanders en route to her nomination will be whether, come November 2016, they should back her as the lesser of two evils as compared with her eventual Republican rival. If the 2016 election is nearly as close as the disputed 2000 contest that saw George W. Bush installed as chief executive by means of a Supreme Court decision -- Bush v. Gore -- that I and others have called a judicial coup d'état, the progressive turnout and vote could well prove decisive for Clinton.

In the meantime, with the election still 17 months away, progressives would do well to realize their influence. Whether they can ever envision holding their collective noses and actually voting for Clinton, they should press her, and every other presidential aspirant, for that matter, to take a firm position on a vitally important item conspicuously absent from Saturday's bucket list -- a pardon for Edward Snowden.

To date, no declared presidential candidate has stated that he or she would pardon Snowden, who remains a fugitive in Russia, having been charged in federal court in Virginia with espionage for blowing the whistle two years ago on the National Security Agency's pervasive and illegal surveillance practices.

Not even Rand Paul, easily the most vocal critic of the NSA in the two-party presidential field, has said he would pardon Snowden if elected. Speaking Saturday in San Diego, Paul praised Snowden for changing the political climate and paving the way for surveillance reform. But as reported in The San Diego Union-Tribune, Paul also said that Snowden broke the law, and "we can't have people making their own mind up to reveal secrets."

Clinton, for her part, has uttered some of the most disingenuous, false and regressive public comments about Snowden among all presidential hopefuls. Appearing at the University of Connecticut in April 2014, Clinton condemned Snowden for, in her words, fleeing to China and then Russia "because we have all these protections for whistleblowers" that would have been available had Snowden truly "wanted to be part of the American debate" about privacy.

As a former secretary of state in the Obama administration -- which has charged and jailed more whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined -- Clinton well knew that Snowden had no safe option but to leave the country. Surely she understood then and understands now, as Daniel Ellsberg wrote in a July 2013 Washington Post op-ed, that "there is zero chance" Snowden "would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley [now Chelsea] Manning, incommunicado."

If Clinton really wants to earn significant progressive support, she should be required to confront and renounce her past statements on Snowden. Most important of all, she should be required unequivocally to vow to pardon him.

Pardoning Snowden wouldn't just be the right thing to do in view of the overriding value to our democracy of his disclosures, it would also be shockingly easy to accomplish. Unlike such promises as paid family leave, which require the cooperation of Congress to implement, the president's pardon, commutation and clemency powers, as set forth in Article II, Section 2, Clause 1, of the Constitution, are plenary. Pardons require no approval from the Senate or House, and they are not subject to judicial review.

Pardoning Snowden would also be in keeping with long-standing traditions. Throughout our history, presidents have wielded the pardon power to forgive wayward political allies, advance programmatic agendas, preclude prosecutions and shorten prison terms.

To cite just a few prominent examples, in 1971, President Richard Nixon commuted the fraud and bribery sentence of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. Three years later, Nixon himself was pardoned by President Gerald Ford for the Watergate break-in and cover-up even before he was indicted.

In 1981, President Reagan pardoned former FBI agent Mark Felt, who subsequently admitted to being the Deep Throat informant in the Watergate affair. Reagan's successor in the oval office, George H.W. Bush, pardoned a host of participants in the 1980s Iran-Contra affair, including former Reagan Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

Continuing the practice, President Bill Clinton pardoned a laundry list of individuals, including his half-brother Roger, who had been convicted of cocaine possession, and Susan McDougal, Bill and Hillary's onetime Arkansas partner in the Whitewater real estate scandal of the 1980s. And George W. Bush, among other acts of clemency, commuted the perjury sentence imposed on Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.

Compared with such a rogue's gallery of scoundrels, scam artists and malefactors, Snowden is more deserving of leniency than anyone.

The progressive left may not pack a great deal of power in our two-party, war-oriented and Wall Street-dominated political culture. But progressives do have the wherewithal to make a Snowden pardon an issue in the upcoming election, starting with the pressure they can bring to bear on a candidate who dearly needs their help -- Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

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