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The Case Against Clemency: Expert Says Snowden's Leaks Hurt Security

A former NSA general counsel tells NPR's Morning Edition that Edward Snowden advertised his theft of government secrets as an act of civil disobedience and should take responsibility.

"He did the crime — he should do the time," says Stewart Baker, also a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

Thursday's interview follows a similar discussion on Morning Edition with Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. Granick presented her case for leniency.

Snowden was the source of leaks to The Guardian and other media outlets that generated a series of exposés on NSA surveillance activities, including the collection of telephone metadata and monitoring of Internet traffic that the spy agency has defended as essential in the fight against terrorism. If he returns to the U.S., Snowden — now living in Russia — will face charges of espionage.

Speaking with host David Greene, Baker says Snowden "portrayed it to all of us as an act of civil disobedience in which he took responsibility for what he'd done."

"He should have, and I think did, understand that it would be treated as a serious crime," Baker says, adding that Snowden swiped far more sensitive information than was needed to make his point.

Baker: "He certainly didn't need to steal thousands of documents to reveal this program. He could have stolen one or two."

Greene: "If he'd stopped there. If, as you say, he'd released just a couple of documents, would you feel differently than you do, that perhaps these charges shouldn't be as strong and that he should be shown some leniency?"

Baker: "In light of the debate, I think I might feel differently. At this point, he has created a debate that he makes it clear that his reaction to what he knew is similar to a lot of other people's in this country. And disclosing this and getting that debate going is something, well, even the president has said that he welcomes the debate.

"Certainly, the journalists who he's provided this to have no intention of stopping there. They are out to do the maximum damage to the National Security Agency and I think probably to the United States."

Asked if he could give an example of how such leaks had damaged U.S. national security, Baker points to a catalog of intelligence techniques, or "exploits," that was exposed: One such technique involved wiretapping USB cables to download a target's computer data.

"There are probably 30 governments who are going through that catalog and saying, 'I didn't know you could do that,' and saying, 'Find somebody who will give me one of these,' " Baker says, adding that "authoritarian governments around the world are going to have new tools, and our tools are going to be less effective."

Given the debate that Snowden's leaks sparked, Baker tells Greene, he still "would have preferred we not have it."

"You can have these programs, of course, but if you debate intelligence programs in the clear, the chances are they are not particularly effective programs after they've been debated in that fashion," he says. "So I think that it's a very damaging debate to have."

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