July 1, 2013

THE COSTS of the Edward Snowden affair continue to mount for the Obama administration — though so far the visible damage is primarily political, rather than national security-related. On Monday, President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry struggled to respond to new allegations, leaked by Mr. Snowden to the German magazine Der Spiegel, that the National Security Agency (NSA) has bugged European Union offices in Washington and New York. If true — and Mr. Obama did not offer a denial — the revelation could complicate the incipient U.S.-E.U. free-trade talks and further sour Europeans’ once-soaring regard for Mr. Obama. Governments and their intelligence services, aware that allies often spy on each other, may be less perturbed.

The administration appears to be making little headway in its efforts to gain custody of the fugitive contractor. However, rulers ranging from Russia’s Vladi­mir Putin to the Chavista socialists of Latin America appear to be holding Mr. Snowden at arm’s length, lest his unpredictable behavior and mounting toxicity contaminate their relations with Washington. Venezuela and Cuba recently have been trying to reach out to the Obama administration, while Ecuador must consider the hundreds of thousands of workers whose jobs are linked to U.S. trade preferences. Though declaring that “Russia never gives up anyone to anybody,” Mr. Putin said Monday that Mr. Snowden must choose between asylum in Moscow and “work aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners.”

In fact, the first U.S. priority should be to prevent Mr. Snowden from leaking information that harms efforts to fight terrorism and conduct legitimate intelligence operations. Documents published so far by news organizations have shed useful light on some NSA programs and raised questions that deserve debate, such as whether a government agency should build a database of Americans’ phone records. But Mr. Snowden is reported to have stolen many more documents, encrypted copies of which may have been given to allies such as the WikiLeaks organization.

It is not clear whether Russia or China hasobtained the material, though U.S. officials would have to assume that Mr. Snowden would be obliged to hand over whatever he has to win asylum in Moscow. Such an exchange would belie his claim to be a patriotic American and a whistleblower. At the same time, stopping potentially damaging revelations or the dissemination of intelligence to adversaries should take precedence over U.S. prosecution of Mr. Snowden — which could enhance his status as a political martyr in the eyes of many both in and outside the United States.

The best solution for both Mr. Snowden and the Obama administration would be his surrender to U.S. authorities, followed by a plea negotiation. It’s hard to believe that the results would leave the 30-year-old contractor worse off than living in permanent exile in an unfree country. Sadly, the supposed friends of this naive hacker are likely advising him otherwise.