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‘Snowden’ Won’t Get Snowden Pardoned

The limits of celebrity activism

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here is a very incomplete list of things that will not get Edward Snowden pardoned: his Drake-level corny Twitter account; petitions; Malia Obama suddenly taking a rabid interest in civil liberties; Susan Sarandon’s moral support; op-eds; the meaningful impact that his disclosures made on surveillance reform; the excellent, Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour; the surprisingly competent Oliver Stone melodrama Snowden.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have launched a campaign urging President Obama to pardon the real-life Snowden, timed alongside the release of Stone’s biopic this past weekend. The timing is intentional. Snowden inserts Snowden back into the public eye, and the pardoning campaign hopes the film will serve as Hollywoodized fuel for activism. Snowden isn’t merely a biopic about Snowden — he is in the movie, a participating member of its promotional push. At the screening I attended, his face loomed superhumanly large over the actors and Stone during the Q&A; questions about Snowden’s politics were sandwiched between questions about the actors’ choices.

Although they are not officially coordinated, the campaign to get Snowden pardoned and Snowden’s promotion are now intertwined, and this means Snowden’s reception is crucial to the pardoning push. A New York Times Magazine piece detailing behind-the-scenes drama describes how sensitive Snowden’s handlers are about the optics:

Later in the piece, Wizner is resigned to Snowden’s participation in the movie:

A big-name commercial hagiography sure seems like a canny way to raise awareness of your cause. I get why Wizner worried about the optics — Snowden has repeatedly been accused of narcissism, and eagerly glomming onto a biopic fits this image of being image-obsessed — but Snowden is not a man with many options. The movie would be made with or without him, for starters. While his eager leaning-in gives detractors more ammo to cry narcissist, it was calculated: Better to be present in a conversation about yourself, and the worst thing that could happen to him now is to be forgotten. The whole reason the CIA is on Hollywood’s jock is because it knows how important flattering cultural portrayals are to public opinion. Snowden’s name is plastered in subway stations, bus stops, and billboards. Fame has long been a vehicle for activism, and Snowden has taken the mantle of the quintessential celebrity whistleblower. He now has a famous avatar in Gordon-Levitt, and the support of a wide array of celebrities. Pamela Anderson, Noam Chomsky, Moby, Matt Damon, and Slavoj Zizek are all pro-Snowden. He is the only whistleblower to have a Peter Gabriel song written about him. He is the only whistleblower to appear in a music video for a Peter Gabriel song:

While it wasn’t stupid for Snowden to participate in the film, I do think it was futile. Edward Snowden is a successful celebrity and a failing cause célèbre. If Stone’s film would have resonated with audiences, it may have summoned public support for Snowden, but it does not appear to have managed that; Stone did not make a hit. Snowden was not expected to sell many tickets, and it didn’t. When it comes to lionizing portrayals of Americans who make gutsy choices, U.S. audiences seem to vastly prefer the conservative gloss of Clint Eastwood’s Sully.

Even if Snowden does somehow substantially push the public opinion needle toward Snowden — even if it becomes a Scarface-style smash in its second week and every dorm room in the Midwest winds up with a poster of a glowering Snowden taped to its walls — the film and its accompanying human-rights campaign would still be highly unlikely to persuade the Obama administration to hairpin on its consistent posture of “hell no we’re not pardoning that guy.” This is the limit of JGL’s fey charisma.

There is no evidence that the Obama administration has warmed up to Snowden or pleas for clemency. “Edward Snowden is not a whistleblower,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at a press conference last Wednesday. The House Intelligence Committee asked Obama not to pardon Snowden last week, and released a scathing unclassified summary of its classified investigation into Snowden, calling him a serial liar who damaged national security. The timing of the report’s release shows that Snowden is perceived as a threat to the intelligence community’s PR machine, but this is all a form of political theater. There is no immediate risk to the anti-Snowden crowd that Obama will pardon the whistleblower.

“If some clemency were granted, you would see mass resignations in the intelligence community. There would be mass opposition,” said Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council and a cohost for The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 podcast.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer for reporting on the Snowden leaks, had its editorial board call for Snowden’s prosecution instead of a pardon this week. The Post editorial board’s stance, which is that some of the Snowden revelations damaged national security, is mind-boggling to me because Snowden was the paper’s source, and the Post newsroom itself had determined which of his disclosures were imminently newsworthy. Why did the editorial board attack the Post’s most fruitful recent source so aggressively? I don’t know, but I do know that it is a terrible sign for the movement to pardon Snowden. If anything, it appears the reaction against Snowden has been more powerful than the reaction to Snowden.

Obama has more to lose than to gain from pardoning Snowden. This may be why his supporters gave me an evasive answer when I asked if it expected President Obama to heed their calls. “We’ll do everything we can to make our case to the president that it would be the right thing to do — for our country, the world, and his legacy,” Pardon Snowden campaign director Noa Yachot told me via email.

The only real avenue for getting Snowden a pardon is electing leaders who will seriously entertain the idea. That will not happen this November. The two people campaigning to be the next president of the United States are even less likely to pardon Snowden than Obama. “I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music,” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said in a primary debate last year. GOP candidate Donald Trump, meanwhile, suggested that Snowden should be executed.