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Did Petraeus and Clinton risk spilling bigger secrets than Snowden?

The president-elect has called for one prosecution, one execution, and one promotion.

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Former CIA director David Petraeus arrives Nov. 28 to meet with US President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York. Petraeus is reportedly under consideration for the US Secretary of State position in the Trump administration, despite his mishandling of classified information.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File

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Edward Snowden, Hillary Clinton, and David Petraeus each mishandled classified information while working for the federal government in recent years, but the three face wildly divergent futures as US President-elect Donald Trump prepares for his transition into the White House.

Mr. Snowden, a fugitive, is resisting felony charges. Mrs. Clinton, defeated in last month's presidential race, avoided prosecution. And Gen. Petraeus, convicted last year, is in the running for US Secretary of State. This stratification of legal and political outcomes raises a number of questions about whether US officials protect national secrets consistently: How much discretion should officials have, both in prosecuting leakers and in deciding which information is privileged? Does mishandling sensitive information disqualify someone from public service? Do their intentions matter?

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Snowden, who spurred reforms by leaking thousands of Earth-shaking documents in 2013 exposing elements of broad American surveillance programs, has petitioned the Obama administration for an 11th-hour pardon or a plea bargain before Mr. Trump, who has taken an exceptionally harsh tone toward the high-profile leaker, takes office. Snowden argues that his leaks were made for the public good, while others have acted carelessly or with selfish motives.

Petraeus, a former CIA director who pleaded guilty last year to leaking classified information to his biographer and lover "shared information that was far more highly classified than I ever did with journalists," Snowden told Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric in an exclusive interview clip published Sunday. "When the government came after him, they charged him with a misdemeanor. He never spent a single day in jail, despite the type of classified information he exposed."

Snowden argued that the relative slap on the wrist Petraeus received demonstrates how high-profile officials avoid punishment while their underlings endure harsher penalties for less severe misdeeds.

"We have a two-tiered system of justice in the United States, where people who are either well-connected to government or they have access to an incredible amount of resources get very light punishments," Snowden said.

This allegation of a double-standard, in a way, resembles one lobbed during the US presidential election. FBI Director James Comey announced last summer that he would not recommend charges against Clinton, the Democratic nominee, despite what he called her "extremely careless" use of a private email server to transmit classified information during her time as Secretary of State. Critics of the decision suggested that low-level government employees would be prosecuted for far less.

Throughout his campaign, Trump railed against Clinton for her email server. The day of Mr. Comey's announcement, Trump tweeted that Comey's call was yet another example of a "rigged" system. "General Petraeus got in trouble for far less," he wrote. "Very very unfair! As usual, bad judgment."

Petraeus avoided prison time by pleading guilty to what one judge described as a "serious lapse in judgment." The retired four-star general confessed to loaning eight binders of highly classified information – which he had stored in an unlocked desk drawer at home, instead of in a secure facility – to his biographer and lover, Paula Broadwell. Petraeus acknowledged again in an interview Sunday that he had erred.

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"Five years ago I made a serious mistake. I acknowledged it. I apologized for it. I paid a very heavy price for it, and I've learned from it," he said in an exclusive interview on ABC's "This Week."

Trump has stood by Petraeus, even while arguing that Clinton's mishandling of classified information disqualifies her for the White House and pushing for a special prosecutor to exhume her case – a position from which he has backpedaled since the election.

Trump has suggested even harsher treatment for Snowden.

"Call it any way you like, but Snowden is a traitor," Trump tweeted in 2013. "When our country was great do you know what we did to traitors?"

Trump, who ran on the campaign slogan "Make America Great Again," clarified and reiterated his position the following year, describing Snowden as a "spy" and saying, "A spy in the old days, when our country was respected and strong, would be executed."

Trump has even stated explicitly that Snowden "should be executed," while Petraeus should "stop apologising."

In an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times, Conor Friedersdorf wrote that the perception of inconsistency and misapplied discretion in how US officials operate can cause serious problems in the American system.

"The fact that the political elite and the hoi polloi operate under different rules would be bad enough if it merely led to unfair outcomes in individual cases. These disparities, however, help determine the intelligence that makes its way to the public," Mr. Friedersdorf wrote in July. "Powerful insiders can simultaneously hide damaging information under 'top secret' stamps and leak favorable information with impunity."

Furthermore, the existence of double standards, Friedersdorf wrote, can undermine confidence in what Trump has repeatedly described as a "rigged" system.