This fugitive NSA whistle-blower did break the law, but that doesn't explain why so many still insist that the US government treat him like the notorious Cold War double-agent who betrayed his country's secrets to the Soviets. This morning's long-overdue New York Times editorial calling for clemency for Snowden, whose leaks revealed the stunning extent of the modern surveillance state, may suggest that the stale conversation in Official Washington about what to do about Snowden is starting to change.
Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service.
That's the crux. Snowden, who still sits on a trove of documents that the government obviously doesn't want publicized, remains on the lam because he's understandably afraid of serving a long prison sentence should he return to the US. And as long as he can reach places like China or Russia, which will summarily ignore extradition demands, the stalemate will continue. Unfortunately, the increasingly barren debate over Snowden has led nowhere since he revealed himself last June as the person who leaked secret NSA documents to The Washington Post and Guardian. The folks baying for Snowden's head will never forgive his original sin, but had he not revealed state secrets, we likely would still be in the dark about the massive extent of government snooping. I think the guy deserves a medal, but even if you disagree, he deserves more leniency from the US.
Contrast that with Philby, a turncoat British intelligence officer whose years of espionage had a hand in sending many agents to their deaths. That's the sort of behavior which ought to invite a stern response. Now, compare that with Snowden's motivations -- and yes, motive does count for a lot.
"I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself," Snowden said in a recent interview with the Post.
I know. That's not going to mollify critics, like Business Insider's Josh Barro, who claim a clemency deal would set a "terrible precedent." At some point, though, we've got to break out of this endless loop. As the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf smartly points out, no less than our first president, George Washington, granted a pardon to the farmers who violently protested a tax on whiskey. "He wouldn't have granted those pardons had he thought that he was making a radical case against the legitimacy of the US government or setting a precedent for anti-tax insurrections," Friedersdorf writes.
Unfortunately, the precedent argument often gets trotted out as a substitute for creative thinking. I suppose the government can hew to the "my way or the highway" position indefinitely, and that would mean Snowden lives out the rest of his years as a fugitive. Again, we need some context. This is nothing like a Kim Philby situation, and the argument that a plea bargain "or some form of clemency" as the Times puts it, would set off waves of similar intelligence leaks just is not credible.
It's time to let him come home. I'll let The New York Times have the last word:
"It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community."