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Debra Saunders
Free Snowden – are you kidding?
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Former CIA Director James Woolsey has pronounced that the proper punishment for National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden would be for him to be “hanged by his neck until he is dead.”

The news media want to hand him not a rope but a pedestal.

The Guardian editorialized last week that its high-profile source is a hero worthy of a presidential pardon. Likewise, The New York Times opined that the Obama administration should offer Snowden “a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home” and serve less time than the three decades he faces under a pending criminal complaint so that he can enjoy “the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.”

Who knows? Mayhap The Gray Lady can give Snowden a blog whence he can lecture readers about privacy rights, as he did in a recent Christmas greeting video.

In one sense, Snowden, 30, is a sympathetic figure. In an ocean of anonymous leakers, he came forward to put a name on the avalanche of information he shared with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman. That singular act gave credibility to the leaks, ended any debate as to what the NSA is doing and peeled off the gauze that camouflaged an industrial-sized intelligence bureaucracy that couldn’t secure itself.

On the other hand, if Snowden can lift about 1.7 million classified documents without penalty, any contractor can leak state secrets with impunity. No other superpower on the planet would entertain such self-destructive folly.

Snowden has argued that he had a moral duty to challenge an intelligence machinery that was out of control. Hudson Institute senior fellow Gabriel Schoenfeld, author of “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law,” is not impressed. Snowden ousted U.S. intelligence “for engaging in activity that almost every state engages in.” The former contractor then went into hiding in China and Russia, where he enjoys temporary asylum. “I think it is disgraceful,” quoted Schoenfeld, that Snowden lectures Washington but “doesn’t have the courage to criticize abuses of free speech in his host country.”

To reach its “free Snowden” position, the Times quoted a federal judge who found the NSA program to be “almost Orwellian” while ignoring another federal judge who upheld the program’s constitutionality. The Times also ignored testimony that “telephony metadata” prevented as many as 50 potential terrorist attacks, including a 2009 plot to blow up the New York subway.

In essence, the Times is stuck in 2007, when then-candidate Barack Obama railed against the “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.” Obama abandoned that convenient campaign rhetoric after he won election and became responsible for the nation’s security.

The Times, however, clings to the 2007 fantasy that surveillance is not a national security tool. Snowden shares that fantastic view, so the paper of record doesn’t want him to pay the criminal price for civil disobedience.

Even some intelligence dons entertain the idea. Last month, Rick Ledgett, the head of the NSA’s Snowden task force, told “60 Minutes” that he considers amnesty for Snowden – in exchange for Snowden’s handing over the rest of the secrets he purloined – “worth having a conversation about.” Ever since, I’ve had this sneaking suspicion that some D.C. black hats want to cut a plea bargain or pardon deal that could make the embarrassing press stories disappear.

Former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow is not unfamiliar with that sneaking suspicion. He thinks Snowden is a “traitor.” If the administration is toying with a deal, he said, it would send a catastrophic message to would-be leakers. To wit: “Just make sure you steal enough.”

It’s almost funny when you follow the editorial boards’ logic. The papers argued that Snowden is a hero because he leaked material about which the public has a right to know. Then they supported granting amnesty or leniency if Snowden would agree to hand over any remaining documents rather than share them with the world. A trial would give Snowden the opportunity to tell his story, the American public a chance to find out what exactly Snowden leaked and Washington the burden of proving a criminal case – but the Times and The Guardian apparently prefer a backroom deal.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.
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