Whether Edward Snowden finds refuge in Ecuador, or elsewhere, the US government has no choice but to seek his extradition. Having violated his secrecy contracts, Mr Snowden has broken serious laws and should face the music. What he disclosed to The Guardian and Washington Post highlights the breadth of the US National Security Agency’s eavesdropping operation. But he did not uncover any breach of US law. Nor do the contents of the leaks invalidate what the NSA is trying to do. There is much scope to tighten its accountability – not least by cutting down on the number of private contractors with access to highly classified information. But treating Mr Snowden as a hero is no answer.

Comparisons to Daniel Ellsberg, the celebrated leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, are particularly inapt. Mr Ellsberg first approached elected senators in the hope they would publicise the papers to discredit US conduct in the Vietnam war. When that failed, he leaked to the media. Mr Snowden made no such attempt. More importantly, Mr Ellsberg willingly submitted to US authorities and courted prosecution so he could defend his civil disobedience on home soil. It was declared a mistrial and he went free. In contrast, Mr Snowden had fled to Hong Kong before his NSA leaks were published. Hong Kong happens to be a part of the sovereign territory of China, the world’s largest (and most cyber-active) autocracy. Mr Snowden’s current host is Russia. His next stop is likely to be Cuba.

Failure to prosecute Mr Snowden would also open the floodgates to many more leaks. Successive US governments have let the national security state outsource much work to contractors, such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Mr Snowden’s employer. Curbing the shadow NSA economy ought to be a priority for President Barack Obama. But his administration is right to leave no doubt that breaking the law has serious consequences.

Other countries have justifiably raised concerns that US citizens have far greater protections than foreigners from Prism and other NSA programmes that snoop on telephone and internet communications. These concerns need to be addressed. There also need to be more stringent protections for US citizens. But before we treat Mr Snowden as a heroic whistleblower, it is worth remembering that he has reached out to governments that care little for the rights of their own people. Mr Ellsberg has generously embraced Mr Snowden as his equivalent. That remains far from obvious.

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Letter in response to this editorial:

Snowden’s flight distracts from the bigger story / From Mr Stefan Grub

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