WASHINGTON, Jan 5 (Reuters) - The public debate over the fate of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden intensified on Sunday with conservative U.S. Senator Rand Paul calling for a light prison term as punishment for Snowden's disclosure of information on government surveillance programs.
Paul, a Republican, said in an interview on ABC's "This Week" that Snowden does not deserve the death penalty or life in prison for the leaks, which have rattled the U.S. intelligence community, not to mention an American public that had been unaware of the extent of NSA data collection.
Instead, Paul spoke favorably of "some penalty of a few years in prison" if Snowden were to return to the United States from Russia, where he currently is living, to face trial.
Paul, a freshman senator from Kentucky and a Tea Party favorite who has his eye on running for president in 2016, made his remarks a few days after a New York Times editorial said Snowden had done the United States "a great service" in divulging details of NSA surveillance.
The newspaper said the U.S. government should offer Snowden "a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home."
Senator Charles Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, also on ABC, said Snowden should return to stand trial but that the United States should not offer a plea bargain to him.
Schumer said a trial could help clarify several issues, including whether the vast amounts of data being collected by the NSA actually help the United States root out terrorists and how much damage Snowden's leaks have done to American intelligence agents.
Last month, a federal judge criticized the NSA's metadata counter-terrorism program, saying that he could not imagine a more "indiscriminate" and "arbitrary invasion."
The Obama administration on Friday appealed that court's ruling: that the NSA's gathering of Americans' telephone records was probably unconstitutional. (Reporting By Richard Cowan; Editing by Bill Trott and Steve Orlofsky)