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COLUMN-The Times advances the NSA's amnesty-for-Snowden trial balloon

Source: Reuters - Thu, 2 Jan 2014 11:56 PM
Author: Reuters
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(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Jack Shafer

Jan 2 (Reuters) - Of course the New York Times editorial page wants clemency or, at the very least, a generous plea bargain for National Security Agency contractor turned super-leaker Edward Snowden! The news pages of the New York Times have directly benefited from top-secret leaks from Snowden to break stories since last August, when the paper acquired a cache of his NSA material from the Guardian. (The Guardian published its own "pardon for Snowden" editorial today.) In urging leniency for Snowden, the Times editorial page is urging leniency for a specific news-pages source, which the editorial doesn't directly state. If that doesn't define enlightened self-interest, nothing does.

The Times editorial page operates independently from the Times news operation, so I'm not suggesting that Executive Editor Jill Abramson instructed Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal what to write. But on this score, she probably didn't even have to stifle the urge. For the last decade, the news side has been breaking stories about warrantless surveillance by the NSA, a secret bank-data surveillance program, and, via WikiLeaks, the war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. diplomatic cables. The editorial page has lectured the government on its overreach and incompetence in the security realm. Abramson and Rosenthal, who report to the same publisher, obviously harmonize on this score. Even if they didn't, it's unlikely in the extreme that a Times editorial would ever call for a Times news-side source to be seated in a Judas Cradle as punishment for leaking to the press.

Did I say unlikely in the extreme? Allow me to reverse my course. Not every editorial page is buckled to its news pages. Take the Washington Post for example.

Last summer, a few days after the Post published its first news stories based on the Snowden files, the paper's editorial page took a hard line on Snowden, surmising on June 11 that "If there is a scandal here, it may be that a government contractor of Mr. Snowden's status had access to so much highly classified material." By July 1, the paper was literally editorializing for the government to do everything possible to plug the leaks and for Snowden to surrender to U.S. authorities. At the same time, the paper's reporters, led by Barton Gellman, were sluicing those very secrets into the Post's news pages and continue to do so. Just before Christmas, Gellman published on the Post's Page One a flattering Q&A with the leaker. The harmony between the editorial and news sides, which I posit as a given at the Times, seems dead at the Post. The anti-Snowden editorials may have softened since the summer, but they still aren't vectoring toward any call for clemency.

You could ridicule the Times editorial for wild, wishful thinking had Rick Ledgett, a top NSA official in charge of the Snowden damage-assessment task force, not also entertained the idea of amnesty on 60 Minutes three weeks ago. "It's worth having a conversation about," said Ledgett, who is expected to be the agency's next No. 2 official. "I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured and my bar for those assurances would be very high." Ledgett insisted his statement represented a "personal view" - as if top NSA officials expecting promotions are allowed to share their "personal views" about national security on national TV. Was he expressing the agency's powerlessness to contain future leaks of the 1.7 million documents Snowden's now believed to have stolen, and trial ballooning the possibility of a deal, or was he gaming Snowden, as I conjectured at the time?

Newspaper editorials, in my view, rarely have any impact on the real world. They exist to lend the oversized egos of publishers and owners a sense of power over politicians, politics, and public policy. But sometimes, just sometimes, an editorial can make a difference by adding velocity to an idea already in motion. By publishing its 1,100-word editorial, the Times fills the clemency cup that a top NSA official lathed into being before a television audience. Any criticism of the Times, for promoting clemency, need also address Ledgett's very public offer of the same with Snowden. His discussion of amnesty on 60 Minutes was about as subtle as a pick-up line shouted across a singles bar at closing time.

I can almost see the words forming on ABC News White House correspondent Jon Karl's lips as he stands to ask a question at President Obama's next news conference: "Mr. President, the New York Times has editorialized in favor of clemency for Edward Snowden. A top NSA official also publicly explored the possibility of amnesty for Snowden on 60 Minutes. What terms would you propose for a Snowden deal?"

The president will duck. He'll have to duck. But some sort of Snowden deal is still in play.

"The government knows where to find us if they want to have a productive conversation about resolutions that don't involve Edward Snowden behind bars," Snowden legal adviser Ben Wizner told the Post's Gellman last week.

The next move belongs to Obama. (Jack Shafer)

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