What if Edward Snowden had stayed to fight his corner?

Out of America: The CIA whistleblower struck a blow for us all, but his 1970s predecessor showed how to win

So what seemed increasingly likely has now come to pass. Trapped in transit limbo at a Moscow airport, Edward Snowden found himself last week with no alternative but to accept asylum in Russia. The arrangement is "temporary" but there's a fair chance he's in the land of Pushkin and Putin for the duration. And that's bad news for him and for his supporters – among whom I include myself.

Historically, American refugees to Russia have had a pretty miserable time. In Stalin's day, many of those who came for idealistic reasons were suspected of being spies, sent to the gulag, and even executed. Later defectors, such as Lee Harvey Oswald or the spy Edward Lee Howard, didn't risk their lives but they couldn't acclimatise; the socialist paradise simply wasn't as billed. One must hope Mr Snowden finds the transition easier.

His current whereabouts is even more depressing for those of us who believe he did his country a service by revealing the extent of the National Security Agency's snooping on American citizens (and the rest of us, for that matter). He could have been a martyr, staying to face the music. Instead, he ended up in the country to which, traditionally, traitors go.

If only he had done an Ellsberg. Daniel Ellsberg, you will recall, was the Snowden of his day: the one-time Department of Defense analyst who, in 1971, leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret official history of the Vietnam War which showed how successive administrations had repeatedly lied about the progress (or, rather, the lack of it) being made by the US.

The Nixon administration threw the book at him, Espionage Act and all, just as the Obama administration did against the hapless Wikileaker Bradley Manning (and would undoubtedly do against Mr Snowden.) But Mr Ellsberg didn't run. He turned himself in to federal prosecutors in Massachusetts, admitting that he was the leaker. His words ring as nobly now as they did then: "I felt that as a … responsible citizen, I could no longer co-operate in concealing this information from the American public," he explained. "I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision."

I do not pretend to know Mr Snowden's deepest motives, or his calculations about asylum, but he surely would have been better off in Hawaii. Yes, he would have faced the full and vengeful wrath of American law and the risk of a lengthy jail term. Last week, Private Manning was acquitted of the most serious charge against him, of aiding the enemy, but could face decades behind bars.

But Mr Ellsberg faced a theoretical 115 years in prison. In the event, his case, which laid bare Watergate- related criminality, backfired disastrously against Nixon's administration. Acquitted on all charges, Daniel Ellsberg remains a hero to the civil liberties movement.

I'm not saying the NSA affair contains the seeds of another Watergate scandal; merely that Mr Snowden's moral standing would be greater had he stayed to face the consequences, instead of taking refuge in a country noted for corruption, autocracy and a disdain for human rights and the rule of law.

Even so, every poll shows Americans more or less evenly split over whether Mr Snowden did right or wrong; if anything, the trend today is in his favour. On Capitol Hill the former intelligence contractor may be lambasted as a coward and traitor, but the NSA excesses that he exposed are causing ever more concern.

Last week, President Obama met with leading Senators to allay their concerns, and a few days earlier a motion in the House of Representatives to cut funding for the Agency's most controversial programmes was defeated by the narrowest of margins. And this in a chamber controlled by Republicans who, even before 9/11, tended to put national security above every other earthly good.

Adding to the unease has been the zeal with which the Obama administration has gone after leakers, with a Fox reporter who was merely doing his job being labelled a "co-conspirator" by the Justice Department for revealing less-than-earth-shattering material about North Korea from a State Department contact.

And all this after the recent history of lying by NSA officials during testimony on Capitol Hill over the extent of the agency's operations, amid a growing awareness of the sham of Congressional oversight, whereby a tiny number of legislators are vouchsafed part of the truth on the condition they can't breathe a word about it. It now seems likely the agency's powers will be curbed, or at least more tightly controlled.

In the meantime, we ordinary mortals must make do with ritual statements from intelligence chiefs about the "irreparable harm" caused by the likes of Mr Snowden and Private Manning, and the dozens of (usually unspecified) terrorist plots thwarted by NSA eavesdroppers.

Alarmingly, the US has been here before, during the post-Watergate investigation by Senator Frank Church of Idaho. Like Mr Ellsberg's statement, the Senator's words of shock at the NSA's unfettered operations echo down the years: "That capability at any time could be turned on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left." If a dictator took over, he warned, the NSA "could enable [him] to impose total tyranny … the abyss from which there is no return."

Edward Snowden could have been a champion for the ages against an overweening, over-intrusive state. He might yet be. But he comes across as a muddled young man, in way over his head, who may have involuntarily provided precious information to the Russians, no slouches where spying is concerned.

"I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American," Mr Snowden has said. So, more or less, did Daniel Ellsberg. But America's martyrs aren't made in Moscow.