Guest Editorial

What next for Snowden?


Russia's decision 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 United States to stand trial.

Those who regard Mr. 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. The administration is right to try to bring Mr. Snowden to justice, although the service he performed in exposing the breathtaking scope of U.S. electronic surveillance may entitle him to leniency.

Mr. 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 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 U.S. House about defunding that program. Nor would the program’s defenders be announcing their willingness to accept modifications.

It’s also likely that as the result of Mr. Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA’s omnivorous monitoring of Internet activity by foreigners, there will be additional protection for information about Americans “incidentally” collected in that dragnet. So if the effects of Mr. Snowden’s leaks are 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 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 Mr. Snowden was alerting Americans to their government’s questionable overreach certainly offers grounds to seek leniency.

Another consideration in the Snowden case is that not all of his revelations involved the collection of personal information about Americans. Mr. Snowden also leaked a document showing that the NSA had intercepted the communications of then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London in 2009.

He also revealed specific dates and other identifying data 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 like whistle-blowing.

Mr. Snowden is entitled to his day in court. That won’t be possible as long as Russia shelters him on the mistaken premise that he is a victim of political persecution.

— Los Angeles Times