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The New York Times Editorial Board has published a remarkably strong defense of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who they refer to as a whistleblower in the headline.

The Times states Snowden should not have to live out the rest of his life in “permanent exile.”

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.

As I have noted here when writing about Snowden, the Times acknowledges that Snowden could face a number of additional charges were he to return to the United States, which could add up to a possible life sentence.

It appropriately calls out President Obama for claiming if Snowden had wanted to “avoid criminal charges he could have simply told his superiors about the abuses, acting, in other words, as a whistleblower.”

“If the concern was that somehow this was the only way to get this information out to the public, I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistle-blower protection to the intelligence community for the first time,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference. “So there were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions.”

In fact, that executive order did not apply to contractors, only to intelligence employees, rendering its protections useless to Mr. Snowden. More important, Mr. Snowden told The Washington Post earlier this month that he did report his misgivings to two superiors at the agency, showing them the volume of data collected by the N.S.A., and that they took no action. (The N.S.A. says there is no evidence of this.) That’s almost certainly because the agency and its leaders don’t consider these collection programs to be an abuse and would never have acted on Mr. Snowden’s concerns.

In retrospect, Mr. Snowden was clearly justified in believing that the only way to blow the whistle on this kind of intelligence-gathering was to expose it to the public and let the resulting furor do the work his superiors would not… [emphasis added]

It is difficult to overstate the significance of the last paragraph and the emphasized sentence. Here we have, perhaps, the most prominent establishment newspaper in the United States legitimizing whistleblowing outside of official channels. If done responsibly, the Times is accepting that a whistleblower could be someone who goes to the press. And whistleblowers who go to the press should not have to flee their country because they are afraid they will be persecuted or punished for the rest of their life.

President Barack Obama has been unwilling to concede that abuses by the NSA actually took place and have been revealed thanks to Snowden. When talking about reforms to restore trust in the NSA, it has been presented as a response to the potential for abuse in the future, not removing or constraining powers that the NSA should not have.

Additionally, the Times editorial outlines the abuse that Snowden has brought attention, from how the NSA broke federal privacy laws “thousands of times per year, according to the agency’s own internal auditor” to the fact that it “broke into the communications links of major data centers around the world.”

It also very deliberately calls what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper did when he testified in March lying. He told Senator Ron Wyden “the NSA was not collecting data on millions of Americans” and the disclosures from Snowden have proved this was a lie. Yet, the US press has done very little to focus on this and press officials on why he is not being punished.

Critics of Snowden are appropriately cast as the “shrill brigade.”

The shrill brigade of his critics say Mr. Snowden has done profound damage to intelligence operations of the United States, but none has presented the slightest proof that his disclosures really hurt the nation’s security. Many of the mass-collection programs Mr. Snowden exposed would work just as well if they were reduced in scope and brought under strict outside oversight, as the presidential panel recommended.

It took awhile for the Times to become a newspaper that was publishing Snowden’s disclosures. Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan recently recounted:

Mr. Snowden’s initial massive leak of classified information went to Barton Gellman at the Washington Post, the filmmaker Laura Poitras, and to Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who wrote for the Guardian U.S. and who now is forming a new media company. As a result, The Times found itself last spring and summer playing an unwelcome game of catch-up. It responded by breaking some good stories, and – through a strong alliance with ProPublica and the Guardian – The Times managed to get a piece of the action.

This alliance formed because of the British government’s efforts to suppress The Guardian’s journalism on the NSA files. [Note: The Guardian published an editorial making the case for a pardon.]

The New York Times editorial board had not been referring to Snowden as a whistleblower. A glance at previous editorials indicates they had simply decided not to give him any label. It is unclear whether it will become routine to refer to him as a whistleblower.

What will be the influence of this editorial on others in the press? How will it lead some pundits to recalibrate their views? Will they consider some of the examples noted by the Times for why Snowden is a whistleblower?

Overall, this is one of the best examples of how a major media organization can use its power to advance the cause of truth and justice. When all three branches of government fail to respond to abuses and, in fact, work together to stymie the efforts of conscientious individuals, who believe in fixing corruption, there remains very few avenues such a person to get information to the public.

One of those avenues is the press. Keeping that avenue open requires media organizations that are willing to stick up for individuals when they are being pursued by the government for daring to show courage and expose the truth.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."