It is now 10 days since the former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, source of the Guardian's NSA bugging revelations, flew out of Hong Kong, apparently en route to Ecuador. For 10 days he has been stalled at Moscow airport, while his passport has been annulled and repeated attempts to continue his journey to sympathetic jurisdictions have failed or been foiled. Over the weekend, Ecuador aborted the idea that he might find sanctuary in Quito. Mr Snowden submitted a request for political asylum in Russia, later withdrawn. Several other asylum bids also faltered at the start of this week. On Tuesday, Mr Snowden remained in Moscow, still dependent on the Russians while waiting on the apparently diminishing chance of being welcomed elsewhere around the world.
All this poses the complex and unavoidable question: what should now happen to Mr Snowden? The answer matters to Mr Snowden above all, as well as to the United States, whose data was published by the Guardian and the Washington Post. But it also matters to the world, because the internet is in every respect a global phenomenon, not an American one, and the data that the NSA is now routinely capturing does not belong to the agency or to the US. That is why the European Union and several member states, including France and Germany, have been so concerned about the allegations. It is also why so many people of all nations who regard themselves as admirers and allies of America are rightly concerned that the US should act appropriately towards the man who has triggered a debate which Barack Obama himself has acknowledged needs to take place.
Mr Snowden is clear that he leaked his information in order to alert the world to the unprecedented and industrial scale of NSA and GCHQ secret data trawling. He did not, he insists, leak in order to damage the US, its interests or its citizens, including those citizens in harm's way. Nothing of this sort has been published. Nor should it be. As long as he remains in Vladimir Putin's Russia, however, the real issue remains clouded. This damages Mr Snowden's cause, which this newspaper supports. He should therefore leave Russia as soon as he practically can.
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The United States is deliberately not making this as easy as it could. Mr Snowden has always accepted that he will have to face the music for what he has done. This is likely to happen sooner or later. But it needs to happen in a way which respects Mr Snowden's rights, and civilian status, and which, above all, also recognises the high public seriousness of what he has decided to do. His welfare matters. It is wrong to acknowledge that there should be a proper debate about data trawling and secret internet surveillance – a debate that could not have started without Mr Snowden – and simultaneously to treat him as a spy in the old cold war sense. Too many US politicians and government officials are doing so.
This is emphatically not a cold war style national security case; it is a 21st century case about the appropriate balance between the power of the secret state and the rights of free citizens in the internet era. To charge Mr Snowden under America's first world war Espionage Act is inappropriate. We live in a different world from that. America is not at war in the traditional sense. Mr Snowden is not a spy. Nor is he a foreign agent. He is a whistleblower. He has published government information. And it is as a whistleblower that he will eventually have to answer to the law.
Any charges against him should be ones to which it is possible to mount a public interest defence, of the sort that was mounted by Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case in the US, or in Britain by the former civil servant Clive Ponting after the Falklands war. It must be for a civilian jury to decide whether Mr Snowden's actions are more troubling and significant than the documents and practices which he has exposed. Mr Snowden must be able to come in from the cold. And America must do more to help make that happen.