Don't Pardon Edward Snowden

Who's spying on whom?

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The movement to pardon NSA leaker Edward Snowden is picking up momentum, with human-rights groups, editorial boards, the Libertarian candidate for president and some former intelligence officers hopping on board. Even Eric Holder, the former attorney general, has said Snowden performed a “public service.”

But to show leniency for the man now enjoying Vladimir Putin's hospitality in Moscow would be to ignore the great damage he has done to U.S. national security. It would also set a bad precedent.

It's true that the public interest was served by Snowden's revelation that the government was collecting telephone metadata without a court order, and that U.S. intelligence services have responded with positive reforms. But Snowden also released classified information on many other intelligence programs that were clearly within the law, exposing sources and methods to America's enemies. This included details of U.S. information-gathering on his Russian hosts.

Snowden claims he tried to report his concerns to his bosses. But considering that he was able to flee the country with more than 1.5 million documents, it's odd that he hasn't provided any e-mails or other evidence to corroborate his story.

Unlike others who have been charged with leaking under the Espionage Act and have stayed in the U.S. to stand trial -- including former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who served nearly two years in federal prison for disclosing the agency’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques" -- Snowden has accepted asylum from one of the world's most repressive regimes. And while the administration has sometimes been too willing to exploit the Espionage Act, Snowden committed exactly the sort of acts it was intended to punish.

Snowden’s lawyers claim he could not get a fair trial under the Espionage Act; many aspects of the trial would be classified and not open to the public, and it’s unlikely he would be able to raise the defense that his intentions were good. But it would still be a jury trial, with its inherent presumption of innocence and constitutional protections, not a military tribunal.

Some of Snowden's supporters suggest that the Justice Department should offer him a deal: leniency in exchange for returning to the U.S. and giving back any classified materials not yet released. But a charge of, say, theft of federal property rather than espionage would not fit the magnitude of Snowden's crime.

The fight against global terrorism will always require trade-offs between national security and privacy. With its metadata program, the NSA went too far. But so did Snowden, in revealing such a vast cache of materials. If he truly feels he has done nothing deserving of punishment, he should make that case to a jury in the U.S.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.