Federal prosecutors recently held discussions with the Washington lawyer of fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden, according to Bill Gertz of The Washington Free Beacon.
Two weeks ago, NBC reported that “negotiations have not yet begun.” Plato Cacheris, Snowden’s D.C. lawyer, told The Beacon there was “nothing to report.”
And Snowden legal adviser Jesslyn Radack denied that the 30-year-old is, according to Gertz, considering a deal “to face lesser charges in exchange for returning the large cache of secret documents.”
In any case, the responses to the article highlight three major obstacles to a plea deal:
1. Snowden is believed to have stolen an estimated 1.5 million documents, and the U.S. government doesn’t know where they are.
The U.S. government believes Snowden began copying documents in the summer of 2012 and “probably downloaded” about 1.7 million documents overall — about 200,000 of which he gave to journalists and another 1.5 million whose current status isn’t known.
And two days after parting ways with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, Snowden told the South China Morning Post he had access to more documents to leak: “If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment.”
It is unclear when or if the former NSA systems administrator gave up access to the cache of up to 1.5 million documents, which is suspected to contain military intel. Snowden recently told NBC that he “destroyed” them but had previously told the New York Times that he gave them all to journalists he met in Hong Kong.
2. Snowden is a valuable intelligence asset who lives in Russia.
No matter the status of the relevant estimated 1.5 million documents, Snowden’s deep knowledge of the NSA systems and the spy agency’s internal processes make him especially appealing to spy services hostile to America.
“To a foreign intelligence service, Snowden is priceless,” Robert Caruso, a former assistant command security manager in the Navy and a consultant, told Business Insider recently. “He can be exploited again and again.”
And Michelle Van Cleave, the National Counterintelligence Executive under President George W. Bush, noted that any deal for Snowden’s return would likely involve Russian cooperation — which raises obvious concerns.
“If the Russians let him go, it will be because they have already gotten all the million-plus secret documents he stole,” Van Cleave said. “So what would be in it for us? I am tired of watching Putin play us for fools. If Snowden wants out of Moscow, he should surrender and face justice for the terrible crimes he has committed.”
3. The U.S. government disagrees with Snowden’s assessment that he is purely a whistleblower and has earned leniency.
Earlier this week, David Ignatius of The Washington Post reported that “the door still appears to be open for Snowden to negotiate some process under which he would return to the United States from Russia and face charges.”
Ben Wizner, one of Snowden’s legal advisers, has said that Snowden “does not believe that the ‘felon’ label is the right word for someone whose act of conscience has revitalized democratic oversight of the intelligence community and is leading to historic reforms.”
The U.S. flatly disagrees with that assessment.
“If he came back and told everything he knows, then perhaps some accommodation could be reached,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Post, noting that plea negotiations “are difficult if you start by saying you’re a hero and wanting a parade.”
The Unanswered Question
Timothy Lee at Vox argues that Snowden should be pardoned, but he doesn’t mention that Snowden is suspected of taking 1.5 million documents that he didn’t give to journalists.
That question of when/if Snowden gave up access to the largest cache is critical to any deal. It is also crucial to understanding Snowden as either a true whistleblower for the global privacy rights or an indiscriminate leaker who also took more than a million documents and defected in Russia.
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