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In his end-of-year news conference, President Barack 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 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.
Kaplan is the author of "The Insurgents" and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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