Speculation is growing over whether Donald Trump might pardon Edward Snowden after the US president told an interviewer that the exiled former intelligence operative was “not being treated fairly”.

The comments came as the Kentucky congressman Thomas Massie, a Republican, made a surprising call on Friday for Snowden to receive a presidential pardon.

Massie, whom Trump has previously attacked, tweeted that Trump “should pardon” Snowden, 37.

Snowden disclosed highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013 when he was a Central Intelligence Agency employee and subcontractor. He revealed the news covertly to the Guardian at the time, then did interviews with this outlet after he fled to Hong Kong, before retreating to Moscow to avoid extradition to the US.

He has remained in Russia ever since.

Snowden’s leaks triggered a scandal in the US over the extent and scope of US surveillance of Americans and of people overseas. He became a hero to many liberals and libertarians, but an enemy to many others who saw his disclosures as a betrayal. The revelations inspired movies, books and documentaries.

Trump himself mused this week on Snowden, in an interview with the New York Post.

“There are a lot of people that think that he is not being treated fairly. I mean, I hear that,” Trump told the newspaper.

He added: “Many people are on his side, I will say that. I don’t know him, never met him. But many people are on his side.”

Trump’s comments reflect a remarkable softening in his views about a man he once deemed a “traitor” worthy of execution, the Post reported.

Trump has pardoned or commuted the sentences of other controversial figures during his first term in office. He commuted the sentence of his longtime ally Roger Stone on seven felony crimes, sparing him a 40-month jail term for crimes aimed at aiding the Trump campaign. He also pardoned the anti-immigrant Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio, sparing the controversial former sheriff after he was convicted of criminal contempt.

In 2016 a petition was started, urging the then president, Barack Obama, to pardon Snowden.

The campaign, organized by the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, included a petition signed by technologists, law professors and celebrities. At a news conference, Snowden appeared by remote video link, thanking the organizers and arguing that his fate will have a broader impact.

“If we are to sustain a free society through the next century, we must ensure that whistleblowers can act again, and safely, as a check on future abuses of power,” Snowden said.

The Pardon Snowden petition reached a million signatures in 2017 and was delivered to the White House.

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