WASHINGTON The U.S. government should grant former NSA contractor Edward Snowden clemency or a plea bargain given the public value of revelations over the National Security Agency's vast spying programs, the New York Times editorial board said on Thursday.
In its lead editorial, the newspaper said Americans now more fully understand how widely their phone calls, emails and other information are tracked. Information provided to journalists by Snowden has also prompted needed legal review of the intelligence gathering and led a presidential panel to call for a major overhaul of the agency, it said.
"Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service," the New York Times' editorial board wrote.
The Guardian, a British newspaper that along with The Washington Post received Snowden's leaked documents, also called for President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden in its own editorial published on Wednesday.
"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 wrote.
Snowden, living in Russia with temporary asylum, last year leaked documents he collected while working for the NSA. The United States has charged him with espionage, and more charges could follow.
The disclosures have sparked a debate over how much leeway to give the U.S. government in gathering information to protect Americans from terrorism, and have prompted numerous lawsuits.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that the NSA's collection of phone call records is lawful, while another judge earlier in December questioned the program's constitutionality. The issue is now more likely to move before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Snowden's Russian amnesty is due to expire in August. He could face at least 30 years in prison over current charges but is more likely to face up to life in prison, the Times said.
NSA's incoming deputy director, Rick Ledgett, recently told CBS News he would favor negotiating an amnesty with Snowden in exchange for securing the documents in his possession, but the White House has dismissed that suggestion.
The New York Times editorial board said Snowden "was clearly justified" in his leaks given that current whistleblower laws do not cover private contractors.
The editorial listed several ways the NSA had violated the public trust, saying it broke federal privacy laws "thousands of times a year," undermined the Internet's basic encryption system and breached the communications links of data centers around the world.
Obama, who has called on Snowden to return to the United States, should instead give him "an incentive to return home," it said.
"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 newspaper wrote. (Reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Nick Zieminski)