The dilemma in judging Edward Snowden deepened with the television interview, in which he tried to answer the basic criticisms leveled against him. Why did he defect to Russia? Ask the State Department, he said, that's where someone canceled his passport and ordered the interception of his flight to a destination in Latin America. Why didn't he make his complaints through proper channels? He says he did, and NBC, the network with the interview, confirms it.
Mr. Snowden reflected on why he stole top-secret government documents and distributed them to a select group of journalists. "Sometimes," he said, "to do the right thing you have to break the law." What the former intelligence analyst did by breaking the law was to tell the world that his superiors are developing the technology to invade the privacy of every American in the name of national security.
Governments around the world now have the ability to take control of every cellphone or computer screen whenever it wants. This was one of the surprises from the NBC interview with the man who blew the whistle, long and loud, on the manifest abuses of the National Security Agency.
He complains that the NSA is populated not with bad people with bad intentions, but good people operating without restraint or oversight. "Senior officials," he said, "are investing themselves with powers that they're not entitled to, and they're doing it without asking the public for any kind of consent."
Had he kept silent, Mr. Snowden could have maintained a comfortable life within the cozy confines of the intelligence agencies, but he was afraid that one day a team of men in black hoods would break through his door and take him to a dark cell in an undisclosed place. Why should he take that risk? "I've gained the ability to go to sleep at night," he said, "and to put my head on the pillow and feel comfortable that I've done the right thing even when it was the hard thing. I'm comfortable with that."
The administration continues to squirm. White House spokesman Jay Carney insists that Mr. Snowden should turn himself over to the Department of Justice "to face those charges and enjoy the rights and protections that defendants in this country enjoy."
But would he be allowed to enjoy those constitutional protections? A federal judge ruled two years ago in a CIA disclosure case that the defendant had no right to tell a jury how his motives were pure, and the accused was left unable to make a public defense. The Espionage Act makes it a crime to disclose information that could conceivably be used by an enemy. It doesn't matter whether the disclosures actually harm anyone. Perhaps Mr. Snowden would come home to "face the music" after certain officials of the NSA answer for their lies to Congress and to the American people about their abuses.
History is left to be the ultimate judge of what Mr. Snowden has done. This is the exquisite dilemma of how the rest of us should regard him, whether patriot or traitor. He performed a crucial and valuable service by investing himself with powers he was not entitled to, by revealing intolerable government abuses. No government can allow an employee to go unpunished for breaking his oath to faithfully keep government secrets.
Breaking a law such an employee regards as wrong can be heroic and ultimately a public service, but the price of doing the right thing, as Martin Luther King reminded us from the Birmingham jail a half-century ago, includes the responsibility to answer for breaking the law. Coming home to face the music for doing the right thing is the hard decision that only Edward Snowden can make.