Edward Snowden (The Guardian/Reuters)

The New York Times editorial board on Thursday urged the United States government to offer former National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden clemency in exchange for returning to the United States.

In the op-ed the paper says Snowden, who has shared a multitude of classified government documents with The Washington Post and The Guardian, is a "whistle-blower" who deserves credit for exposing a surveillance program that went too far.

Here's the crux of the editorial board's argument:

The revelations have already prompted two federal judges to accuse the N.S.A. of violating the Constitution (although a third, unfortunately, found the dragnet surveillance to be legal). A panel appointed by President Obama issued a powerful indictment of the agency’s invasions of privacy and called for a major overhaul of its operations.

All of this is entirely because of information provided to journalists by Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who stole a trove of highly classified documents after he became disillusioned with the agency’s voraciousness. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia, on the run from American charges of espionage and theft, and he faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

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.

President Obama mistakenly said in a pre-Christmas news conference that Snowden had been indicted. Federal prosecutors have actually filed a criminal complaint -- a process that doesn't involve a grand jury and, unlike an indictment, isn't under seal -- accusing Snowden of espionage.

For now, the Times's call for leniency appears to be meeting a skeptical public. A November Washington Post-ABC News poll showed just 38 percent thought Snowden shouldn't face charges for his actions, while 52 percent said he should. Six in 10 Americans (60 percent) said he harmed national security, while another 55 percent said he "did the wrong thing."

Of course, the Times isn't saying Snowden shouldn't be charged at all -- just that he should face a reduced penalty. There's also the possibility that sentiment has changed due to events that have happened since the poll was conducted. A federal judge recently ruled that the NSA bulk collection of phone records was likely unconstitutional, but last week, another judge said it was legal.

Update 11:53 a.m.: The Guardian, which has published reports based on Snowden's documents, has also called for Snowden to receive a full pardon.

Originally posted at 8:10 a.m. This post has been updated.