Edward Snowden sparked an overdue and valuable debate about the role of the National Security Agency and its surveillance programs. In that way, the country has benefited from the classified documents that he has leaked to news organizations. All of us have learned about the sweeping reach of the agency, beyond even the understanding of the secret court that oversees its operations. We are in a better position to make choices about the policies worth pursuing in countering terrorism.
That task belongs to Congress and the White House, and both institutions have begun to re-examine the work of the agency. A presidential task force recently produced a smart assessment and set of recommendations. Federal judges have issued varying interpretations of the agency and the law, adding further depth to the discussion.
No surprise that the debate has included arguments urging leniency for Snowden, who faces a criminal complaint charging him with theft and two violations of the 1917 Espionage Act. The New York Times added its voice last week, calling for discussions of a plea bargain, or “some form of clemency,” in view of the “great service” Snowden has provided the country.
The NSA official in charge of the damage assessment has talked about “a conversation” with Snowden about leniency in return for his cooperation in regaining the leaked documents.
At some point, such an approach may make sense. For the moment, it is worth recalling that Snowden wasn’t just a whistleblower, revealing what the American public deserved to know. Among the documents he has released has been information about actual intelligence missions in such places as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. These are part of the necessary business of governments, having nothing to do with domestic surveillance. What harm has Snowden brought?
More, there are the curious travels of Snowden, to Hong Kong, and then to Russia, where he saluted his hosts for their support of human rights. He set out to penetrate the National Security Agency. He succeeded. Part of what he achieved has been valuable. Part of it has not, leaving Edward Snowden with much to reveal about his actions before leniency should be discussed.