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Inconvenient truth about Snowden

A recent undated handout picture received from Channel 4 December 24 2013 shows US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden preparing make

A recent, undated handout picture received from Channel 4 on December 24, 2013 shows US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden preparing to make his television Christmas message. US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden will call on citizens to work together to end mass surveillance when he delivers a Christmas Day broadcast to Britain, the Channel 4 television network said on Tuesday. In his first television appearance since claiming asylum in Russia, Snowden, who caused shockwaves around the world by revealing mass US electronic surveillance programmes, will give a staunch defence of privacy in the short pre-recorded broadcast. AFP PHOTO / CHANNEL 4 RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT " AFP PHOTO / CHANNEL 4" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSCHANNEL 4/AFP/Getty Images

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Updated: January 28, 2014 6:23AM

Edward Snowden is a criminal.

We can’t get around that inconvenient fact, and neither should anybody else.

If any employee or contractor working for an American intelligence agency can freely divulge state secrets as he sees fit, guided only by his conscience, then that intelligence agency might as well shut down, and we can all just cross our fingers against future terrorist attacks.

Because Snowden revealed state secrets that arguably should not have been state secrets, about overreaching government practices that trouble many Americans, his defenders say he did nothing wrong. Quite to the contrary, they say, he’s an American hero.

But how will Snowden’s admirers respond, we wonder, when the next self-styled heroic whistleblower, emboldened by Snowden’s example, comes along and spills more state secrets — revelations that perhaps this time put American security, soldiers, diplomats, spies and allies in grave danger? Or has the world suddenly become so safe that we no longer need to worry about a zealot with a dirty bomb flying into O’Hare?

In a Christmas Day address on British television, Snowden justified his leaking of electronic monitoring programs by the National Security Agency by saying he was striking a blow for privacy rights. “Together,” he said, “we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.”

Got that? Had we only asked, Osama bin Laden’s operatives might have filled us in.

Without a doubt, much good has come from Snowden’s revelations about the federal government’s widespread snooping on ordinary Americans. As we wrote just last week, we hope President Barack Obama will accept the recommendations of a panel of expert advisers and rein in the snoops. Obama appointed that panel in the first place only because of public outrage over what Snowden revealed.

But a fortuitous outcome makes Snowden no less a criminal, as one member of the president’s advisory panel, Geoffrey Stone, said to Sun-Times Washington reporter Lynn Sweet this week.

“I understand why many people think that Snowden did the nation a service,” Stone, a University of Chicago Law School professor, said. “And certainly there were positive consequences that arose from what he did. But at the same time we have a very strong legal principle in our system, that you don’t get to commit a crime because you have a good justification for doing so.”

Stone said it is a matter of discouraging a dangerous precedent:

“Any kind of a notion that someone is not a criminal when they do this opens the door to other people saying, ‘Well, gee, I can do this and be a hero and I won’t even go to jail for it.’ I think you just don’t want that. . . .

“Basically, my view is I think Snowden is a criminal.”

We would respect Snowden more if he forthrightly acknowledged he had broken the law, gave himself up to American authorities and defended his actions in court. But in an interview with the Washington Post this week, he instead made the dubious argument that though he had signed a federal classified-information nondisclosure agreement, he broke no laws because his first allegiance was to the Constitution.

Snowden is living in Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum. And he seems to be in no rush to return home, perhaps because he can see the holes in his own argument.

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