The former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has said Edward Snowden should have the right to launch a legal and public defence of his decision to leak top-secret documents if he returns to the United States.
“If he wishes to return knowing he would be held accountable and also able to present a defence, that is his decision to make,” Clinton said in a video interview with the Guardian on Friday.
Snowden, who is currently in Russia where he has been afforded temporary asylum, has been charged with three separate violations of the US Espionage Act. These charges include stealing government property and sharing classified documents with the Guardian and the Washington Post.
When Clinton was asked if she believed the Espionage Act – passed in 1917 – should be reformed in order to allow Snowden a defence, she claimed not to know what the whistleblower had been charged with as they were “sealed indictments”.
“In any case that I’m aware of as a former lawyer, he has a right to mount a defence,” she said. “And he certainly has a right to launch both a legal defence and a public defence, which can of course affect the legal defence.
“Whether he chooses to return or not is up to him. He certainly can stay in Russia, apparently under Putin’s protection, for the rest of his life if that’s what he chooses. But if he is serious about engaging in the debate then he could take the opportunity to come back and have that debate. But that’s his decision.”
Amid the ongoing and substantial aftershocks following the Snowden revelations, Keir Starmer, Britain’s former director of public prosecutions, has drafted new legal guidelines seeking to protect journalists in the UK who break the law in pursuit of investigations that have genuine public interest.
“Defining of the public interest is always very, very difficult. We did go through a consultation exercise on that and I think we’ve got it about right,” he told the Guardian in October.
Snowden’s legal team have stated that lack of recourse to a public interest defence is a key obstacle to the whistleblower returning to the US.
Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “The laws would not provide him any opportunity to say that the information never should have been withheld from the public in the first place.
“And the fact that the disclosures have led to the highest journalism rewards, have led to historic reforms in the US and around the world – all of that would be irrelevant in a prosecution under the espionage laws in the United States.”
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