Leniency for Edward Snowden: Why the New York Times editorial won’t matter much

Should anyone care that the New York Times wants clemency for Edward Snowden?

More specifically, will Barack Obama care?

Editorial pages routinely weigh in on presidential candidates, questions of war and peace, and a wide array of political issues. Newspapers have far less clout than they used to, but they do have a role in shaping public dialogue. In the Snowden case, though, there is essentially an audience of one.

The contention that the biggest leaker in American history, now a fugitive in Russia, should be given clemency or a plea bargain seems to be an ivory-tower argument. Obama would face an enormous political backlash if he let Snowden off the legal hook, the kind that doesn’t concern the editorialists on West 43rd Street.

In an interview with the paper’s ombudsman, editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal said that“sometimes you have to go beyond what is realistic” in an editorial recommendation, not necessarily saying what might happen but rather, “this is what should happen.”

The money graph in the editorial:

“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. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.”

There is a bit of a conflict in the Times’ stance, since the Guardian shared Snowden’s documents with the paper, resulting in scoops for the New York Times. What would be stunning is if a newspaper urged that one of its sources be jailed for life.

It’s true that Snowden single-handedly ignited a global debate over national security, technology and privacy by revealing the massive scale of surveillance that one federal judge found “almost Orwellian” (but another upheld as constitutional). And he gave up a comfortable life in Hawaii to act on his principles. But, uh, Snowden also broke the law. In fact, what made his stand courageous is that he leaked the NSA documents and then identified himself, rather than hiding behind a curtain of anonymity. He seemed prepared to accept the consequences of his actions before obtaining de facto asylum in Moscow.

Still, this is an issue that seems to cut across the usual ideological lines. On "Media Buzz" Sunday, Hot Air's Mary Katharine Ham said she was sympathetic toward the notion of leniency for Snowden.

There are times when a pardon becomes the subject of great national debate. Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon probably cost him the next election. Dick Cheney’s push for a Scooter Libby pardon was also extremely controversial. Snowden has now ascended into that pantheon.

Maybe the Times editorial gives the White House some political cover to make a deal with Snowden. But it’s more likely that the president will keep his distance from this journalistic suggestion.