U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made government whistleblower Edward Snowden a very peculiar offer last week: plead guilty, and the U.S. government would consider how to handle his criminal case.
That seems an inverted way of doing things—in the United States, the discussions (if not the trial) usually come before the guilty plea—but Holder’s statement hints yet again at the conundrum facing the government when it comes to Snowden, a former subcontractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked secrets about that group’s intelligence operations to a number of newspapers, most notably The Guardian.
“Were he coming back to the U.S. to enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers,” Holder told an audience at the University of Virginia, according to The New York Times.
That’s quite a change from last summer, when Snowden first leaked documents downloaded from the NSA’s datacenters, and the U.S. government wasted no time issuing warrants for his arrest. Fearing extradition back to his native country, Snowden eventually fled to Russia, where he continues to live on a one-year visa.
But as Snowden languished on the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. government found itself forced into a discussion about the extent of NSA spying. The leaked documents detailed a surveillance apparatus that vacuums up enormous amounts of data on individuals all over the world—including Americans within the United States, who are ordinarily outside the NSA’s purview. After months of sometimes-confused messaging, President Obama finally took to a podium Jan. 17 to describe a series of NSA reforms he planned on implementing, including one that stops the agency from storing phone metadata on its own servers.
During his speech, Obama refused to talk much about Snowden. “I won’t dwell on [his] actions or his motivations,” he told the gathered reporters. But ask any number of pundits, and they’ll probably tell you that Obama wouldn’t have been on that stage if Snowden hadn’t decided to dump hundreds of pages of documents in the collective lap of the world’s journalists.
Some of those journalists have returned the favor by publicly asking for clemency of some sort. Because Snowden revealed how the NSA “exceeded its mandate and abused its authority,” The New York Times recently suggested in an op-ed, he “deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight.” Instead, “a plea bargain or some form of clemency” might prove more appropriate, even if it still includes a degree of punishment.
It’s unlikely that the U.S. government would ever consider giving full clemency to Snowden. But now it seems that various officials are willing to offer something other than locking him in a deep, dark cell and throwing away the key.
Image: The Guardian (screengrab)