House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi brushed back the assertions of leading Republicans that the former NSA contractor who leaked details of American spying was a "traitor," but said Friday that Edward Snowden needs to return and face trial, or reach a plea deal, for his deeds.
At a meeting with Los Angeles Times editors and reporters, Pelosi navigated between those who consider Snowden's actions unpatriotic and others grateful that he laid bare America's spying secrets — the latter group comprised of many of Pelosi's natural constituents on the Democratic left.
"If the idea was: American people, you should know … they are collecting metadata about your phone -- who you call, not what you say but who you call -- people would say, 'Thank God you told me that.' There's a case that can be made for that," she said. "But to take all that information and make it public -- hacking on [German leader Angela] Merkel, this and that, that was not a good faith thing. But that wasn't breaking the law. Breaking the law was taking the stuff. You broke the law, come back.
"I'm not of the school that says he's a traitor," Pelosi said of Snowden. "I'm saying he broke the law, he should face the music, whatever that means."
When asked whether that music should include the charges of espionage that have been filed against him, Pelosi replied, "I think there could be a plea," depending on Snowden's intent.
"I am annoyed that he made so much of it public -- that it's an embarrassment to our country and I didn't think that was a patriotic thing to do, but I share the sympathy that some people have, that 'I'm glad he found out that they knew who I was calling and he let me know.' They are two different things …. Is it espionage to let the American people know that they are being spied upon? ... I don't know the facts."
As his actions became public Snowden was in Hong Kong, and he eventually traveled to Russia, where he remains. Pelosi said those movements, to countries highly interested in American intelligence, "hurt his cause" and raised questions about his intent.
Still, the former House speaker from San Francisco saved most of her umbrage for NSA security standards that allowed Snowden to remove information undetected.
"I'm appalled by the fact that he was able to walk out of the building with all that he did, or however he got it out," she said, adding that she did not think it was possible to be done "without some collaboration" from others, however unwitting.
"Something is very wrong with the system. In any event it happened, it's ridiculous that it happened. Somebody should be in trouble for that and I want to know who's responsible for that," she said.
Some Republicans have argued that Snowden's actions were high-level espionage, done with the intent of spreading information to enemies. Speaking Thursday night on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno," House Speaker John A. Boehner would not go that far but did call Snowden a "traitor."
From her left, Pelosi has been criticized by Snowden's defenders since he leaked the information to news organizations last year. In June, during an appearance at Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of thousands of liberal activists and bloggers, Pelosi was roundly booed after saying that she believed Snowden had broken the law.
During the discussion with Times reporters and editors, Pelosi expressed optimism about her party's chances of taking over the House — a possibility that is seen as remote by many strategists. She said the president's healthcare bill would not negatively affect most members but, in any case, "it's worth taking the heat for."
"Members feel very proud of the bill. We're not proud of the website," she said, distancing the intent of Obamacare from its rocky rollout.
And she called on Republicans to rally behind an immigration measure that included a path to citizenship for millions in the country illegally.
"It would be worth losing the election to pass comprehensive immigration reform," she said.
But she offered little rationale for how that would happen, as she criticized Republicans on a range of issues.
On immigration, she said, "There is really a deep divide in the Republican party. In the House, it's something brutal."
"They're anti-government, they're anti-science and they're anti-Obama," she added later. "They have a trifecta going, which gives them a comfort level to vote against just about anything."