President Donald Trump told reporters on Saturday he is considering a pardon for Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who leaked a giant trove of U.S. national secrets in 2013.
“I’m going to start looking at it,” Trump said at a news conference in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Snowden fled to Russia and was given asylum in 2013 after his leaks exposed a vast domestic and international surveillance operation carried out by the NSA. U.S. authorities have since sought to have Snowden return to face criminal espionage charges.
Snowden’s attorney said the United States should not only pardon his client but drop all prosecutions since Snowden has not committed any crimes.
“He was acting not only in the interest of the American citizens, but in the interest of all the humankind,” the attorney, Anatoly Kucherena, said.
Shortly after media stories about Snowden’s leaks emerged in 2013, Trump called him “a spy who should be executed.”
The president said on Aug. 15 he thinks Americans on both the political left and the right are divided on Snowden.
“It seems to be a split decision,” Trump said. “Many people think he should be somehow treated differently. And other people think he did very bad things.”
Snowden’s leaks exposed domestic spying operations that U.S. officials claimed not to exist.
The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit last September against Snowden, arguing that the memoir he published last year, titled “Permanent Record,” violated non-disclosure agreements.
The Justice Department said Snowden published the book without submitting it to intelligence agencies for review, adding that speeches given by Snowden also violated nondisclosure agreements.
Snowden has previously said he is willing to return to the United States if the government would guarantee a fair trial.
Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, Britain’s GCHQ, and other intelligence agencies set off an international debate about spies’ powers to monitor personal communications, and about the balance between security and privacy. Critics say his disclosures harmed the ability of the United States and its allies to fight terrorism.
A federal court ruled in 2015 that the NSA’s metadata surveillance program that Snowden exposed was illegal. The program collected information on at least 80 percent of all the phone calls made or received by Americans. President Barack Obama signed legislation the same year to terminate the program. Snowden called the decision “a historic victory for the rights of every citizen.”
The NSA still operates PRISM, a program which collects communications from internet providers.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.