Is Edward Snowden a Hero Who Deserves Obama's Pardon?

Edward Snowden and his allies are lobbying President Obama to pardon him.

Edward Snowden wants President Obama to pardon him and, along with his supporters, has launched an extensive campaign to make that happen. The timing coincides with the last months of Obama’s Presidency and the release of a sympathetic Oliver Stone film about the whistleblower. Human rights organizations such as ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have joined Snowden’s cause.

His many supporters hope that the high-profile film will help change the minds of many about the divisive figure who was charged in 2013 under the Espionage Act. Snowden’s lawyer Ben Wizner, who is also the director of ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, felt very positive after screening the movie:

"I think Oliver will do more for Snowden in two hours than his lawyers have been able to do in three years," Wizner related to Motherboard.

To take advantage of the potentially pro-Snowden climate, the groups that support pardoning him have launched a website -, which allows his supporters to sign a petition.

The site describes him as “a young American who became aware of a mass surveillance system that had been growing secretly for years without democratic consent. At great personal risk, he blew the whistle.”

The site makes the case that Snowden should actually be deemed a hero since as a result of his actions, “the NSA's surveillance powers were reined in for the first time in decades”. 

A number of celebrities, like Apple's co-founder Steve Wozniak, actress Susan Sarandon, director Terry Gilliam, Professors Noam Chomsky and Cornel West, and others have lent their voices to the movement for Snowden’s pardon.
Former Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders is generally supportive as well, writing that:

"The information disclosed by Edward Snowden has allowed Congress and the American people to understand the degree to which the NSA has abused its authority and violated our constitutional rights.”

Despite acknowledging the good he has done, Sanders doesn’t advocate for a full pardon, as Snowden did break the law, instead calling for “some form of clemency or a plea agreement that would spare him a long prison sentence or permanent exile.”

This kind of sentiment is similar to the 2014 editorial by the New York Times, which thought the value of what Snowden revealed far outweighed his crime, saying:

Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight….. When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.”

Snowden himself lobbied for clemency in an interview with “The Guardian,” stating:

“Yes, there are laws on the books that say one thing, but that is perhaps why the pardon power exists—for the exceptions, for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally, when we look at them ethically, when we look at the results, it seems these were necessary things, these were vital things.”

And Snowden believes that his actions had concrete results:

“I think when people look at the calculations of benefit, it is clear that in the wake of 2013 the laws of our nation changed. The Congress, the courts and the president all changed their policies as a result of these disclosures. At the same time there has never been any public evidence that any individual came to harm as a result.” 

A supporter holds a sign at a small rally in support of National Security Administration (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden in Manhattan's Union Square on June 10, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Hoping to ride the groundswell of support, the campaign plans to formally ask President Obama for Snowden’s pardon before he leaves office.

Will Obama do it? Probably not. The President expressed previously that people he would free are ones who were imprisoned during a different time, with different sentencing guidelines, which got them longer prison sentences than they would get today. The Espionage Act according to which Snowden was charged, was passed in 1917 to punish spies and does not provide well for the situation of disposing information for the public good. The law as such has not changed.

Pardons are also usually granted to people who have already served their time, something Snowden clearly did not do.

Obama’s administration also rejected a 2015 public petition for the pardon which had 168,000 signatures by stating that he should have not run away to Russia and instead should’ve come to the US and “be judged by a jury of his peers—not hide behind the cover of an authoritarian regime.” 

What Snowden faces if he was to come back to the U.S. are three felonies, including two espionage charges, each carrying a maximum sentence of ten years.  

Does the history of pardons bode well for Snowden? Some famous Presidential pardons have included President Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon, seen as a way to help the nation heal. Nixon himself pardoned the jailed Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, likely to gain political favor with the unions. The famous socialist Eugene Debs went to jail under the Espionage Act for advocating resistance to the military draft in World War I, and was pardoned two years later by President Warren G. Harding. 

While some times used, Presidential pardons are also wrought with danger for the outgoing leader. President Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich on his last day in office was met with major controversy. Chances are, pardoning Snowden would set off a political firestorm that is not likely to help Democrats as they vie to keep the office of the Presidency. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump haven’t expressed much support for Snowden, with Clinton wanting Snowden to stand trial in the U.S. and with Trump threatening execution. 

Cover photo: Edward Snowden speaks via video link at a news conference for the launch of a campaign calling for President Obama to pardon him on September 14, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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