It's January 2, and what will likely be the most important newspaper editorial of the year has already been published in the New York Times:

Seven months ago, the world began to learn the vast scope of the National Security Agency's reach into the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the globe, as it collects information about their phone calls, their email messages, their friends and contacts, how they spend their days and where they spend their nights. The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices.

The revelations have already prompted two federal judges to accuse the N.S.A. of violating the Constitution (although a third, unfortunately, found the dragnet surveillance to be legal). A panel appointed by President Obama issued a powerful indictment of the agency's invasions of privacy and called for a major overhaul of its operations.

All of this is entirely because of information provided to journalists by Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who stole a trove of highly classified documents after he became disillusioned with the agency's voraciousness. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia, on the run from American charges of espionage and theft, and he faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.

The significance of this editorial cannot be understated. Despite the paper's unabashed liberal stance on social and domestic issues, the Times has tended to be a sober voice of the status quo on the national security state. If you don't believe that, go back and read its coverage of the Iraq war buildup (does the name Judy Miller ring a bell?). If the bipartisan surveillance regime that has thrived under first Bush and now Obama has lost the New York Times, surely it has lost America.

But could this -- a deal or clemency for Snowden -- actually happen? Not before November's mid-terms, no way. Whenever an election approaches, Obama has shown his steely determination not to deviate from the norms of the national security state -- drones, troop surges, spying, etc. -- no matter how wobbly those norms increasingly become. The "wisdom" of the 1980s -- that a Democrat can't face voters looking like "a liberal wuss" -- is locked in.

At the same time, Obama's second term is taking baby steps to finally end the abuses of the 2000s (check out recent moves on Gitmo, for example) and there are reports, albeit highly speculative ones, that he wants to reduce out-of-control spying on everyday Americans, to make that part of his legacy for the history books. If so, lenient treatment for Snowden can be part of that -- and it should be. Home for Christmas, 2014? It's not only in his dreams anymore.