Administration officials say the possibility of a public spectacle wherein Snowden tries to reveal even more classified information to make his case has not lessened the Justice Department's intent to prosecute him, and Attorney General Eric Holder has not warmed to calls for clemency for the former NSA systems analyst.
Department spokesman Andrew Ames last week indicated there was no change in the department's intent to prosecute, and that point was reinforced by National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
"There's been no change in our position: Mr. Snowden is accused of leaking classified information and faces felony charges here in the United States," Hayden said. "He should be returned to the U.S. as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process and protections."
A former NSA general counsel, Stewart Baker, drawing from conversations with his former associates after New York Times and Guardian editorials called for clemency, said the issue "has been more of a media idea than something that is being seriously debated inside the government."
Both newspapers, along with The Washington Post, have received and reported on some of the documents Snowden took.
"I haven't talked to anyone in government who considers this a possibility," Baker said.
Officials have called Snowden's leaks the single largest theft of secrets in U.S. history.
The Justice Department breaks those alleged misdeeds into three charges filed in federal court in Virginia: theft of government property; under the Espionage Act, the unauthorized communication of national defense information; and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.
A November Washington Post/ABC News poll found 52 percent of Americans supported charging Snowden with a crime, while 38 percent opposed it.
Escaping conviction would be difficult.
Snowden has admitted taking and distributing the documents, explained Jason Weinstein, a former deputy assistant attorney general. The documents were first published in the Guardian and the Post in June, based on some of the thousands of documents Snowden handed over to Barton Gellman of the Post, Brazil-based American journalist Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, a U.S. filmmaker.
It would be tough, too, to make a legal argument that Snowden was acting as a whistle-blower, exposing criminal wrongdoing by the government.
"To the legal argument that the programs were illegal, the government's answer would be that the programs were legally authorized," Weinstein said.
"Your personal judgment as to whether the government is doing something illegal is not an element of the crime. You disclosed something you did not have permission to disclose."