WASHINGTON - A debate over whether Edward J. Snowden deserves lenience or the strict treatment the Obama administration has demanded for divulging a vast array of national secrets drew sharply opposing views Sunday from two prominent senators.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian-minded Republican, said he disagreed with those who have argued for the most severe penalties for Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.
"I don't think Edward Snowden deserves a death penalty or life in prison; I think that's inappropriate, and I think that's why he fled, because that's what he faced," Paul said on the ABC News program "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."
"I think, really, in the end," Paul added, "history's going to judge that he revealed great abuses of our government and great abuses of our intelligence community" by exposing the broad sweep of electronic surveillance by the NSA.
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Without directly suggesting some sort of bargain to lessen the charges facing Snowden and perhaps pave the way for his return from exile in Russia, Paul said, "I think the only way he's coming home is if someone would offer him a fair trial with a reasonable sentence."
But a leading Democrat, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, took a directly opposing view.
"I disagree with Rand Paul that we should plea-bargain with him prior to him coming back," Schumer said.
The senator appeared after Paul on the ABC program, where both men were asked about a New York Times editorial about Snowden that cited "the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed," and suggested that the United States offer Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency.
Calls for leniency, which have also come from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and from commentators at home and abroad, have been fueled by a federal judge's ruling that one of the surveillance programs Snowden exposed was probably unconstitutional.
But Schumer said that if Snowden considered himself part of the "grand tradition of civil disobedience in this country" - a tradition he said included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers four decades ago - he should return home to stand trial and face the consequences of his actions. Such a trial, the senator said, could be enlightening for the country.
In June, federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Snowden charging him with theft and two violations of the 1917 Espionage Act.
Schumer said that crucial questions remained about the import of Snowden's actions, which badly shook relations with some U.S. allies.
He said it was unclear how much the broad metadata gleaned by the NSA had helped the fight against terrorists, how much damage Snowden had, in fact, done to intelligence efforts, and precisely how the data were used.
"All of this could come out in a trial; it would be beneficial for the country to have the discussion," Schumer said. "So, running away, being helped by Russia and China, is not in the tradition of a true civil disobedience practitioner."
Paul also suggested that James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, might deserve some prison time for his misleading testimony in March - before the Snowden revelations began to emerge. Asked at an open congressional hearing whether the security agency collected "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans," he replied, "No, sir," adding, "Not wittingly."
Clapper later told NBC that the question had seemed, at the time, to be unanswerable by a simple yes or no. "So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying, 'No.'"