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US unmoved by Snowden’s claim to clemency

White House, top lawmakers insist no mercy is due

Edward J. Snowden, shown on a boat on the Moscow River in September, sought clemency in a letter.

LifeNews via Rossia 24 TV/Associated Press

Edward J. Snowden, shown on a boat on the Moscow River in September, sought clemency in a letter.

NEW YORK — If Edward J. Snowden believes he deserves clemency for his disclosures of classified government documents because they provoked an important public debate about the reach of US spying, he has failed to sway the White House and at least two key members of Congress.

The chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and her House counterpart, Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan, gave sharply negative answers Sunday when asked whether they believed Snowden had made a case for clemency.

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“He was trusted; he stripped our system. He had an opportunity — if what he was a whistle-blower — to pick up the phone and call the House intelligence committee, the Senate intelligence committee, and say I have some information,” Feinstein said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “That didn’t happen.”

“He’s done this enormous disservice to our country,” she added, “and I think the answer is no clemency.”

Rogers was equally adamant.

“No, I don’t see any reason” to grant clemency, he said on the same program. “I wouldn’t do that. He needs to come back and own up. We can have those conversations, if he believes there are vulnerabilities he’d like to disclose.”

Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House adviser, said on ABC’s “This Week” that there had been no consideration of clemency, and that Snowden should return to the United States to face charges.

Snowden’s argument — made in a “Manifesto for the Truth” published Sunday by the German news magazine Der Spiegel and in a letter to US officials — was that he has started a useful debate about whether US spies are overreaching with the help of enormously powerful technology and should be reined in.

Federal prosecutors have charged Snowden with theft and with two violations of the Espionage Act of 1917. But Snowden, who has taken refuge in Russia, has denied any treasonous intent, saying he disclosed secrets to the news media, not to hostile foreign powers, and did so to push for reform.

“Instead of causing damage, the usefulness of the new public knowledge for society is now clear because reforms to politics, supervision and laws are being suggested,” Snowden wrote in Der Spiegel. “Citizens have to fight against the suppression of information about affairs of essential importance for the public. Those who speak the truth are not committing a crime.”

Indeed, Feinstein is among those who have raised the question of overreach by the National Security Agency and the need for possible reform, particularly after reports that the agency had long monitored the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Feinstein said Sunday that she strongly supported a White House review to consider a more appropriate framework for intelligence operations. She wants her committee to conduct its own review.

Tapping the private phones of close allies, she said, “has much more political liability than probably intelligence viability, and I think we ought to look at it carefully. I believe the president is doing that.”

Rogers was asked whether President Obama could have been unaware of such phone monitoring, and whether the Europeans who have expressed outrage over National Security Agency espionage could have been truly surprised that such high-level spying goes on.

“I think there’s going to be some Best Actor Awards coming out of the White House this year, and Best Supporting Actor Awards coming out of the European Union,” Rogers replied. ‘‘Some notion that . . . people just didn’t have an understanding about how we collect information to protect the United States to me is wrong.’’

He said that fundamentally, the security agency was doing the work it had been created to do, a belief that Feinstein said she largely shared.

Feinstein’s committee produced a bill last week that she said would increase congressional oversight and limit some NSA powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Privacy advocates, however, say the measure codifies the agency’s rights to scoop up millions of American’s telephone records.

Retired General Michael Hayden, a former head of the NSA and CIA, said it was possible Obama did not know about the alleged Merkel phone tapping.

But Hayden, who was interviewed on the CBS program, said it was ‘‘impossible’’ that Obama’s top staffers were unaware.

‘‘The fact that they didn’t rush in to tell the president this was going on points out what I think is a fundamental fact: This wasn’t exceptional. This is what we were expected to do,’’ he said.

Snowden’s appeal for clemency came in a letter from Snowden carried to Berlin by Hans-Christian Ströbele, a veteran member of the Green Party in the German Parliament.

In his letter, Snowden, 30, also said his disclosures about US intelligence activity at home and abroad exposed what he called “systematic violations of law by my government that created a moral duty to act.”

Yet “my government continues to treat dissent as defection, and seeks to criminalize political speech with felony charges that provide no defense,” Snowden wrote. “However, speaking the truth is not a crime. I am confident that with the support of the international community, the government of the United Sates will abandon this harmful behavior.”

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