Lost prestige: The Snowden case has the U.S. reassuring Putin?

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When he leaked secret information on the National Security Agency's massive surveillance efforts, Edward J. Snowden set in motion events that are still playing out. While he languishes as a U.S. fugitive with uncertain status in Russia, his countrymen have been debating the constitutional limits of the government spying he exposed.

The former intelligence contractor's actions have also inadvertently put the focus on another uncomfortable truth for Americans back home to consider: How much the international prestige of the United States has been tarnished over the past decade or so by the unorthodox excesses in the fight against terrorism.

The telling moment came in a letter sent by U.S. Attorney General Eric J. Holder Jr. to his Russian counterpart, Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov. In an attempt to counter the fears that Mr. Snowden himself expressed about his possible fate, Mr. Holder assured the Russian government that the fugitive would not be subject to torture or the death penalty if he were returned to the United States.

It has come to this: The government of the United States must explain itself to Vladimir Putin's Russia, where raw power is used to stifle dissent and foes of corruption find themselves imprisoned or worse.

Further, the cynical leaders of Russia do not have much reason to believe U.S. assurances. They will remember that in 2007 President George W. Bush declared with a fine disregard for the truth: "This government does not torture people," a fiction that has not survived revelations about waterboarding and renditions of terror suspects to foreign countries for torture there. On security policy, the Obama administration has yet to show it is much different from its predecessor.

To be sure, Mr. Holder's letter is a promise that Mr. Snowden would be handled in the traditional U.S. judicial system with its constitutional protections -- not in the nether world of CIA detention centers or Guantanamo Bay (still not closed). But implicitly having to make that distinction underscores the problem. Once upon a time, America's reputation for decency preceded it. Now we have to tell leaders like the autocratic Mr. Putin that our behavior will be above reproach -- really, cross our hearts.

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