The New York Times and Guardian newspapers have called for clemency for Edward Snowden, saying that the espionage worker-turned-privacy advocate should be praised rather than punished for his disclosures.
The papers — both of which have played a role in publishing Snowden's intelligence trove — suggested late Wednesday that the former National Security Agency contractor's revelations about the United States' world-spanning espionage program were of such public importance that they outweighed any possible wrongdoing.
"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," the Times said, calling either for a plea bargain, some form of clemency, or a "substantially reduced punishment."
The Guardian said it hoped "calm heads within the present (U.S.) 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 whistle-blowers and of free speech itself."
But the paper also said it was hard to envision U.S. President Barack Obama giving the leaker "the pardon he deserves."
Both newspapers published their editorials online within a few hours of one another, but Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said the papers' appeals weren't co-ordinated ahead of time.
"Complete coincidence," he said in an email. He credited the legal reverses suffered by the NSA's domestic dragnet, the spying reforms suggested by Obama's privacy review team and Silicon Valley companies' recent summit at the White House with bringing things to a head.
"We both had the same thought — that, after the rather extraordinary events just before Xmas ... it (would) be (good) to say something at year end," he said.
Snowden is residing in Russia following an abortive attempt to travel to Latin America, where he'd been offered asylum. He faces espionage charges in connection with his leaks, which U.S. officials have described as damaging or even life-threatening, but talk of amnesty has been circulating for several weeks after the idea was first floated by senior NSA official Rick Leggett.
Asked about the proposal in his year-end news conference on Dec. 20, Obama didn't explicitly rule it out, and at least one former member of the intelligence community suggested the idea had some traction. Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former chief of Britain's MI5, recently told the BBC she expected "some kind of deal" for Snowden — although she was careful to note that she was simply speculating.
A legal analyst who has followed the Snowden saga said he doubted the amnesty talk would amount to much.
The newspaper editorials have "approximately zero per cent chance of moving the Justice Department off its position," said writer Jeffrey Toobin, a former federal prosecutor and a critic of Snowden's disclosures.
Toobin also noted that both papers have relied on Snowden as a source for stories on the NSA. The Guardian has done so directly, through journalist Glenn Greenwald, and The New York Times indirectly, thanks to a deal the Guardian struck with the paper back in July.
"We as journalists have a special solicitude for our sources," he said.