Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked a trove of highly classified documents detailing the government's surveillance program, last week announced that he would seek a presidential pardon, outlining his case in an interview with The Guardian's Ewen MacAskill. The request coincides with the release of an Oliver Stone film, titled "Snowden," that casts the whistleblower in a sympathetic light.
Snowden left the United States in 2013 and has been in exile in Russia ever since. Asked in a press conference about the possibility of a Snowden pardon, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest last week said, "Mr. Snowden has been charged with serious crimes, and it's the policy of the administration that Mr. Snowden should return to the United States and face those charges."
This position mirrors a similar response the White House provided following an online petition to pardon Snowden in 2013.
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The president "shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment," reads Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. How a pardon is used depends entirely on the administration, and past presidencies haven't stopped from granting amnesty to controversial figures.
Undoubtedly the most infamous use of the presidential prerogative is in the case of Gerald Ford, who gave Nixon a full pardon. Nixon had been accused of obstruction of justice for his role in the Watergate scandal.
The decision proved controversial at the time and contributed to Ford's failure to secure a 1976 electoral victory to return to the Oval Office. But the pardon dispensed with what would have been a long and divisive trial over the actions of the former commander-in-chief.
In 1971, just in time for Christmas, President Nixon commuted the sentence of Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the Teamsters Union serving his fourth out of 13-year sentence for jury tampering and fraud. As part of the agreement, Hoffa would be barred working with a labor organization until 1980. Hoffa threw his support behind Nixon in the 1972 election, providing some modest contribution to Nixon's eventual electoral victory.
Years after the commutation, a popular theory alleged that Nixon had received a cash payoff for pardoning Hoffa, a claim denied by both Nixon and his aides as well as Hoffa's successor at the Teamsters Union.
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Vietnam War Draft Dodgers
Presidents often save their most controversial pardons for their waning days in office. On the day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter offered unconditional amnesty to any Americans who didn't register for the draft or fled the country when called to serve, fulfilling a controversial promise he made during the campaign. These men were known as draft dodgers.
Carter's decision did only apply to civilians, however. Service members who served but went AWOL or deserted during the war. Protesters were also ineligible for amnesty.
Critics, particularly veterans, were incensed at the decision. In their view, the amnesty was an affront to those who served and would only encourage future Americans to dodge the draft in times of conflict and avoid punishment.
On Christmas in 1992, in the waning days of his single term in office, President George H.W. Bush pardoned six former officials in Ronald Reagan's Administration, including former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Weinberger had been scheduled to stand trial in a matter of weeks on charges of lying to independent prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, over the secretary's knowledge of the Iran-contra scandal.
Walsh spent over six years investigating the case, and upon hearing the decision, declared that the "Iran-Contra cover-up... has now been completed."
In a move that would later become known as Pardongate, President Bill Clinton pardoned more people in his last day in office than his predecessor did over his entire term.
On Jan. 20, 2001, Clinton issued 140 pardons and 26 commutations. Among the more controversial figures pardoned include Marc Rich, a fugitive who fled the United States following a 1983 indictment on tax evasion; Carlos Vignali, a convicted drug trafficker; and the president's brother, Roger Clinton, who was convicted and served his sentence for drug charges a decade earlier.
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