Whistleblowers have large egos by nature, and there is no crime or shame in that. But one gasps at the megalomania and delusion in Snowden’s statements, and one can’t help but wonder if he is a dupe, a tool, or simply astonishingly naïve.
Along these same lines, it may be telling that Snowden did not release—or at least the recipients of his cache haven’t yet published—any documents detailing the cyber-operations of any other countries, especially Russia or China, even though he would have had access to the NSA’s after-action reports on the hundreds or thousands of hacking campaigns that they too have mounted over the years.
This leads to the ultimate question of what to do with Edward Snowden should the Russians spit him out when his asylum status expires and no other country picks him up. I should note that I do not side with the national-security extremists on this matter—former CIA Director James Woolsey’s thunderous remark on Fox News that Snowden “should be hanged by his neck until he is dead” or columnist Max Boot’s jibe that the only kind of plea bargain offered to Snowden should be “one that allows him to serve life in a maximum-security prison rather than face the death penalty for his treason.” These may be crowd-pleasing bits of theater, but they’re way over the top.
Snowden’s indictment, should he ever face one, will tally a long list of crimes, but treason—the one crime in this category that carries a possible death penalty—is unlikely to be among them. Treason is defined, and carefully circumscribed, in the U.S. Constitution, specifically in Article III, Section 3, which states:
“Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid or Comfort.” (Emphasis mine.) Whatever Snowden may have done, whatever damage he may have caused, he did not do this.
But what did he do exactly, why did he do it, and what consequences did his actions have? One could conceive a scenario in which top U.S. government officials offered Snowden a deal (as the Times editorial put it, “a plea bargain” involving “substantially reduced punishment”) if, among many other things, he fully answered those questions. Rick Ledgett, the NSA official in charge of damage assessment on the Snowden case, recently told 60 Minutes that he’d be open to “having a conversation” about clemency for Snowden in exchange for his assistance in securing the stolen documents still out there.
In his end-of-year news conference, President Obama distanced himself from Ledgett’s remarks, which were rather vague to begin with. (For one thing, it’s unclear how Snowden would go about securing the documents.) Still, prosecutors make deals with criminals all the time in exchange for their help in catching bigger fish or solving bigger problems.
Here are some questions that prosecutors or senior officials might ask Snowden—hooked up to a lie detector—as part of the preliminary steps in a “conversation” about a plea bargain (which, they’d no doubt make clear, would still involve several years in prison).
First, why did Snowden go to Hong Kong? Why did he go from there to Moscow? (Supposedly he had planned to catch a connecting flight to Havana and, from there, to Ecuador, but there are many ways to get from Hong Kong to Havana without going through Moscow.)
Second, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Snowden spent three days at the Russian consulate in Hong Kong before booking his flight to Moscow. Is this true? What did he do there? Snowden later told the New York Times’ James Risen that he took no classified documents into Russia. Assuming that’s true, did he give them to Russian officials in Hong Kong? What did he talk to the Russians about? Did he request asylum, or did they offer it? (Kommersant quoted some Russian officials claiming the former, others the latter.)
If it turned out that Snowden did give information to the Russians or Chinese (or if intelligence assessments show that the leaks did substantial damage to national security, something that hasn’t been proved in public), then I’d say all talk of a deal is off—and I assume the Times editorial page would agree.
Third, whatever Snowden said or didn’t say to the Russians, they must have asked him a lot of questions—if not during his mysterious stay in Moscow (or wherever they’re currently keeping him), then during the month he spent in the transit lounge of Sheremetyevo Airport. It might be useful for U.S. intelligence officials to know what sorts of things the Russian intelligence officials wanted to know. Snowden could pick up some favor points by playing double (or triple) agent.
Fourth, Snowden claimed in an interview with the Post’s Barton Gellman that he raised concerns about widespread domestic surveillance with several of his colleagues and superiors in the NSA’s technological directorate. NSA spokesmen subsequently commented that they had “not found any evidence” supporting this contention, but this is hardly a definitive denial. Snowden should provide the names of those colleagues and superiors, and assurances should be offered that they not be in any way punished. If Snowden’s claim is true, at least that would show he tried to fix things from the inside before going out in the cold. That would offer something in support of his plea for whistleblower status.
But it’s unlikely that any of this will come to pass. Unless Snowden changes his stripes dramatically, he doesn’t seem inclined to cooperate with his former masters, whom he now depicts as threats to world peace. Nor, I suspect, would the U.S. government be inclined to cooperate with the likes of Snowden, especially given this administration’s intolerance of far less ambitious leakers and—more to the point—the deep layers of secrecy surrounding everything about the NSA.
My guess is, Edward Snowden will spend a very long time in Russia, in some other country ruled by an even more unpleasantly authoritarian regime, or in an American prison. At this point, the choice of where, or for how long, is up to him.