Does Edward Snowden deserve clemency?
The New York Times and Britain's Guardian newspaper certainly think so.
In an editorial posted Wednesday and published in Thursday's print editions titled "Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower," the Times argues forcefully that Snowden has made an enormous contribution to the public good by exposing rampant surveillance of dubious legality by the National Security Agency. In the Times' view, this far outweighs the need to harshly punish the former NSA contractor, now living in temporary exile in Russia, for leaking classified information.
''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," says the Times, the nation's preeminent news organization. "He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. 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."
The Guardian, which has led the way in coverage of the Snowden saga, also editorialized in favor of a way to allow him to return home without spending the rest of his life in jail.
"We hope," the paper wrote, "that calm heads within the present administration are working on a strategy to allow Mr Snowden to return to the US with dignity, and the president to use his executive powers to treat him humanely and in a manner that would be a shining example about the value of whistleblowers and of free speech itself."
Snowden has been a very polarizing figure, with admirers picturing him as a heroic figure willing to pay a huge personal price to dial back runway government snooping. But to others, he's simply a traitor who has irresponsibly given away government secrets and weakened American security.
Snowden has said his goal was to trigger a public debate over massive collecting of telephone and digital records that Americans knew nothing about. In that, he has succeeded, big time.
While judges have reached opposite conclusions about the legality of the snooping and the matter appears destined to be sorted out by the U.S. Supreme Court, one judge found the phone record gathering "almost Orwellian" and probably unconstitutional. The Senate Intelligence Committee has launched a major reexamination of government surveillance programs. A panel appointed by President Obama in December called for a litany of reforms, and the president has promised "a pretty definitive statement" on which of them he supports sometime this month.
So what's next for Snowden? The U.S. has revoked his passport, and Russia has taken him in for just a year. Other offers of exile have remained elusive. And the Obama administration and congressional leaders in the past have shown little enthusiasm for clemency for Snowden.
For his part, Snowden has made it clear that he would prefer to come home. And he should be able to do so without spending his remaining days behind bars. As the Times points out, there's no evidence he has done damage to the country. Says the paper's editorial, "The shrill brigade of his critics say Mr. Snowden has done profound damage to intelligence operations of the United States, but none has presented the slightest proof that his disclosures really hurt the nation's security."
That doesn't mean he should go scot-free. Snowden did break the law. A plea bargain involving a less-than-draconian stint in the slammer would strike an appropriate balance for a figure who, polarizing or not, has done a substantial service for his country.