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NSA debate isn’t so cut-and-dried

It might be easier to feel sympathy for Edward Snowden if the former National Security Agency worker hadn’t high-tailed it out of the country after leaking classified documents. Those documents disclosed programs that show the U.S. government has been accumulating phone and Internet data on its own citizens.

Russia last week granted Snowden temporary asylum for a year, much to the consternation of the administration of President Barack Obama, who wants Snowden returned to the U.S. to face felony charges.

It would be easier to take the Obama administration’s protestations at face value if they weren’t so mealy-mouthed when discussing the issue at a White House press briefing last week.

On the one hand, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Snowden should be punished for his actions.

“When you take an oath to protect the secrets of the United States, you’re bound to protect them, and there are consequences if you don’t,” said Carney, making the administration seem like a wolf salivating at the prospect of an unguarded lamb chop.

In nearly the same breath, Carney also said, “I think the president, as he has made abundantly clear, welcomes the discussion and debate.”

And therein lies the irony. Without Snowden’s leaks, no debate would be possible, because the American people would not know that their phone calls, emails and Internet activity were being tracked by the world’s most powerful spy agency.

The administration seems to want to have it both ways: Let’s have a debate, but prosecute the person who made that debate possible in the first place.

And when asked by a reporter last week if the president still believes the surveillance programs disclosed by Snowden should still be secret, Carney could have provided a simple yes or no response. It is, perhaps, telling that he danced around the topic.

The premise for the administration’s position on Snowden seems to be that classified information should never be made public. That tenet conveniently ignores the fact that our government has a long history of classifying information when releasing it might prove embarrassing, as when an administration says one thing and does something quite different.

Exhibit A is the Pentagon Papers, which detailed the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. They were classified, too, until Daniel Ellsberg leaked them to The New York Times in 1971 and the world learned that the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations had been lying to the public for years.

That appears to be the case with the Obama adminstration, too, according to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the president’s own party from Oregon who released a statement last Wednesday after the administration unsealed previously classified documents about the government’s data collection program.

Wyden said the administration made “innaccurate statements” during its briefings to Congress.

And while Carney, the president’s spokesman, tried to legitimize the surveillance programs when he made much of the fact that they were approved, vetted and overseen by Congress, Wyden had a different view.

He said the documents provided “further evidence of a pattern of misleading statements to Congress on this topic. Similarly misleading statements about the bulk email records program were also made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, though these statements unfortunately remain classified.”

If the administration did, in fact, deceive the committees that had oversight in these matters, that undermines the whole oversight process and would seem to support the conclusion that Congress didn’t really have oversight at all.

We don’t know what should happen to Edward Snowden, who, on the surface anyway, strikes us as being a lot closer to whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg than notorious spy John Walker Jr.

But whatever occurs, the interests of justice should take into account the Obama administration’s own unclean hands and the fact that, thanks to Snowden, the country is now getting the debate that the president, with the hollow benefit of hindsight, has said he wants.