Russia’s decision Thursday to grant political asylum to Edward Snowden for a year frustrates — at least for the foreseeable future — the Obama administration’s attempt to return the former National Security Agency contractor to the U.S. to stand trial. Those who regard Snowden as a heroic whistle-blower hope that the administration will now abandon its attempt to prosecute him, but that is neither likely nor desirable. We believe the administration is right to try to bring Snowden to justice, even as we acknowledge that the service he performed in exposing the breathtaking scope of U.S. electronic surveillance may entitle him to leniency.
Snowden’s disclosures have inspired an overdue debate that was previously impossible because of the cloak of government secrecy that shrouded the surveillance programs. Without his revelation to the Guardian that the U.S. government was scooping up reams of information about the phone calls of virtually every American, there wouldn’t have been a close vote in the House of Representatives about defunding that program, nor would the program’s defenders be announcing their willingness to accept modifications, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., did this week. It’s also likely that, as the result of Snowden’s disclosure about the NSA’s omnivorous monitoring of Internet activity by foreigners, there will be additional protection for information about Americans “incidentally” collected in that dragnet.
If the effects of Snowden’s leaks are so salutary, his defenders ask, why should he be prosecuted?
One answer is that, in a society of laws, those who engage in civil disobedience should be prepared to accept some legal consequences for their actions. That principle assures that individuals will think seriously, as they should, about whether lawbreaking is justified by a higher cause. This doesn’t mean that judges and juries can’t take into account the motives of those who violate what they see as unjust laws. That Snowden was a whistle-blower alerting Americans to their government’s questionable overreach certainly seems like grounds to seek leniency.
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Another consideration in the Snowden case is that not all of his revelations involved the collection of personal information about Americans. Snowden also gave the Guardian a document showing that the NSA had intercepted the communications of then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a Group of 20 summit in London in 2009. And Snowden revealed in an interview the specific dates and the IP addresses of computers in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland that had been hacked by the NSA over four years. Disclosing intelligence operations directed at foreign countries does nothing to protect Americans’ privacy, and it doesn’t seem to us like whistle-blowing.
Snowden is entitled to his day in court, but that won’t be possible as long as Russia shelters him on the mistaken premise that he is a victim of political persecution.