January 6

Is Edward Snowden a traitor? The question has vexed me since he leaked some of the United States’ most valued secrets to news organizations, including The Post. It soon became obvious, though, that he was giving Americans information that maybe we should have had all along and getting nothing in exchange — no baubles, no dames and, much less cinematically, no eurobonds. As a traitor, Snowden is something of a flop. He’s all quid and no quo.

The question of Snowden’s fate has been raised anew by the New York Times. Last week, it published a strong editorial arguing that Snowden should be offered some sort of deal — maybe even clemency — so that he can abandon his exile in Russia and return to the United States. The reaction was extraordinary: more than 1,200 comments by midday, which is exceptional for an editorial. Many of them were “obscene and hate-filled,” the paper’s editorial page editor told its public editor — and that is not exceptional at all. Descartes must now be updated: I am insulted, therefore I am.

Now I, too, must open myself up to vilification. I have already written that Snowden is not much of a traitor. He hardly fits the category — Benedict Arnold, Julius Rosenberg (I hesitate when it comes to his wife, Ethel) or, more recently, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. My list is not nearly complete, but to add Snowden to it would create a mismatch, one of those tests in which you are asked to find the example that does not fit the category. No matter. The epithet “traitor” has been hurled at Snowden by a host of honorables — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Peter King and that emeritus one from administrations past, Dick Cheney.

It remains somewhat possible that Snowden did serious harm to the United States. However, I have heard such claims all my career — from the Pentagon Papers onward — and yet, somehow, the country staggers on. Whatever the case, harm was apparently not Snowden’s intention. He seemed intent only on alerting us to the extent of government eavesdropping. In this sense, Snowden did good.

Still, the law matters. I assume Snowden broke it, and law, in the end, is what this controversy is all about. Some people say the eavesdropping programs are illegal (the courts, so far, are split), and some say Snowden had an inherent, moral right and obligation to do what he did — the law be damned. But the laws in question are not morally repugnant. They are ­common-sense ones that recognize the right of the government to have secrets. These are the laws that Snowden probably broke — and he cannot be allowed to have done so with impunity.

Snowden faces lots of jail time. He has been charged with two violations of the Espionage Act and with stealing government property. Each of these can get him 10 years in prison — and, knowing the government, accusations galore that have not been revealed may be waiting for him upon his return to the United States. Why anyone would want to come back to 30 or so years in jail is beyond me. Apparently, Snowden thinks the same. He will remain a man without a country, living out his life as did the protagonist in Edward Everett Hale’s 19th-century short story, “The Man Without a Country.” Russia, in more ways than one, is a cold, cold place.

Snowden is something new under the sun. He defies categorization. He is not a spy and not a conventional traitor. The old remedies and punishments do not fit. Some sort of deal should be made — reduced jail time in exchange for his cooperation. A deal would be to our advantage. The United States would get back Snowden as well as his information (apparently it’s still not clear what he took) — and he would get back some of his life.

But the government seems adamant: no deal. The virulence of the reaction strongly suggests that Snowden did more than violate the law. He embarrassed the government, bringing a blush to officials who knew of the snooping on foreign leaders (Germany’s Angela Merkel and others) and those who should have but did not. He revealed as well the breathtaking extent of a program of which Congress was substantially unaware. In effect, Snowden did to the government what the government did to Merkel. That’s no reason to throw the book at the guy.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.