Edward Snowden, PR asset for Russia. Source: The Guardian via Getty Images
Edward Snowden, PR asset for Russia. Source: The Guardian via Getty Images

Here's one good reason for the U.S. to invite Edward Snowden back and offer him clemency: While he is still in exile, any action taken by the U.S. against foreign electronic spying, as in the recent case involving Chinese hackers, looks to the outside world like the cynical application of double standards.

The indictment of five Chinese military officers who are accused of hacking into the computer networks of U.S. companies such as Westinghouse, SolarWorld, U.S. Steel and Alcoa, was a symbolic gesture. The U.S. cannot get at the hackers, and they will never serve the de facto life sentences spelled out in the indictment, but the charges did allow U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to make a statement: "Success in the global marketplace should be based solely on a company’s ability to innovate and compete, not on a sponsor government’s ability to spy and steal business secrets."

Holder's words ring hollow in light of the former National Security Agency contractor's revelations about the kinds of secrets the U.S. sought to steal. "Much of the Snowden archive revealed what can only be called economic espionage," Glenn Greenwald, Snowden's collaborator, wrote in his book "No Place to Hide." Among the targets were Brazilian oil company Petrobras, Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom and Russian airline Aeroflot. One document cited in the book dealt with spying on the "trade activities" of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan and Mexico. None of these countries has indicted any U.S. intelligence officers in response to the revelations.

As he left Moscow in March after a bruising tour of duty, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul wrote in the New York Times: "The United States does not have the same moral authority as it did in the last century. As ambassador, I found it difficult to defend our commitment to sovereignty and international law when asked by Russians, 'What about Iraq?' Some current practices of American democracy also do not inspire observers abroad. To win this new conflict, we must restore the United States as a model."

Putting the Snowden case to rest would be a good start. Telling the leaker to "man up" and face prosecution, as Secretary of State John Kerry did recently, is no help. Kerry said in the same breath that Snowden is "a man who has done great damage to his country." Snowden is justified in thinking official judgment has already been passed on him, and Kerry is being hypocritical when he asserts that the fugitive should "trust the American system of justice."

The U.S. government has yet to fully explain what kind of damage the revelations did. A Pentagon report obtained by the Guardian newspaper called the extent of this damage "staggering," but it was redacted so as to exclude any specifics. U.S. Representative Peter King alleged recently that Snowden "put American lives at risk," but Greenwald insists in his book that Snowden was very careful not to reveal information that could harm U.S. operatives, and King's assertion is not supported by any publicly available facts.

It would be reasonable to admit at this point that the damage Snowden did was mostly to America's international credibility, and perhaps to its ability to spy on allies and others. That is unpleasant, but perhaps not worth shaking fists at a man stuck incongruously in Russia, a country he doesn't like or intend to make his home, simply because everything that makes Washington mad makes Moscow happy. Snowden is now a public relations asset for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man Washington should not be helping.

Letting Snowden come home on acceptable terms would, paradoxically, go a long way toward repairing the damage he did -- and a longer way toward restoring the moral authority mentioned by McFaul. Someone would have to "man up," admit the hypocrisy Snowden revealed and apologize for it.

Unfortunately, that's highly unlikely: Congress recently watered down an NSA reform bill initiated after Snowden's leaks. His return will have to wait until McFaul's point of view is more widely shared in Washington.

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.