Edward Snowden is a heroic whistle-blower who exposed wrongdoing by U.S. government spy agencies and deserves clemency — or even a full pardon from President Barack Obama.
That’s the argument in a pair of editorials published on Thursday by the New York Times and Britain's the Guardian newspaper, pressing Obama to drop his insistence that the former National Security Agency contractor end his exile in Russia and come home to face trial.
"When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government," the Times argued. "President Obama should tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr. Snowden's vilification and give him an incentive to return home."
The Times declared that Snowden's disclosures — the largest unauthorized publication of national security secrets in U.S. history — had proven that the NSA has "exceeded its mandate and abused its authority." The daily — one of the few news outlets the president is known to read regularly — said Snowden forced a national debate on the government's powers to spy on its citizens (and those of other countries).
"He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service," the Times argued. "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 Times also took a shot at the "shrill brigade" of Snowden's fiercest critics, those who argue without "the slightest proof" that he did profound damage to American national security, and noted that Obama's own outside NSA review panel recommended sweeping changes.)
While the Times stopped short of calling for a full pardon, the Guardian did not. "It is difficult to imagine Mr. Obama giving Mr. Snowden the pardon he deserves," the daily wrote.
Asked for comment on the brace of editorials, White House national security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden referred to previous administration appeals for Snowden to return home and face trial.
But the Guardian suggested that the Obama administration might wait until after the Supreme Court weighs in on the lawfulness of some of the NSA's signature programs, a near certainty because of conflicting rulings in federal courts.
If the Supreme Court finds that Snowden's disclosures have value, "is it then conceivable that he could be treated as a traitor or common felon?" the Guardian asked.
"We hope that calm heads within the present administration are working on a strategy to allow Mr. Snowden to return to the U.S. 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," the Guardian said.
The Guardian has published some of the biggest Snowden bombshells.
The Times recently marked 22 years since it successfully battled the government in court to publish the secret "Pentagon Papers" history of the Vietnam War. The offiicial who disclosed those documents, Daniel Ellsberg, went free after a federal judge dismissed all charges against him after uncovering wrongdoing by the Nixon administration.
What was arguably the most high-profile leak case under Obama before Snowden, former Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for passing classified U.S. information to the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks organization. Manning will reportedly be eligible for parole in 2020.