Federal prosecutors recently held discussions with representatives of renegade National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden on a possible deal involving his return to the United States to face charges of stealing more than a million secret NSA documents, according to U.S. officials.
Snowden is currently in Moscow under Russian government protection after fleeing Hawaii, where he worked in NSA’s Kunia facility, for Hong Kong in May 2013. U.S. officials have charged him with stealing an estimated 1.7 million documents from NSA Net and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) and providing some materials to news outlets.
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Discussions on Snowden’s return were held in the past several weeks between prosecutors in the Justice Department’s National Security Division and Plato Cacheris, a long-time Washington defense lawyer who in the past represented several U.S. spies, including some who reached plea bargains rather than go to trial.
Cacheris declined to comment when asked about the discussions. "There’s nothing to report," he told the Washington Free Beacon.
No details of the discussions could be learned. But the talks focused on a plea deal that would result in Snowden returning to the United States to face lesser charges in exchange for returning the large cache of secret documents, said officials familiar with some aspects of the talks.
A Justice Department spokesman would not comment directly when asked about discussions on a deal for Snowden.
"It remains our position that Mr. Snowden should return to the United States and face the charges filed against him," Marc Raimondi told the Free Beacon. "If he does, he will be accorded full due process and protections."
Snowden was charged with three espionage-related offenses in a criminal complaint unsealed in June 2013. They include theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.
Intelligence, security, and law enforcement officials are said to be divided on whether to pursue a plea deal with Snowden, or to continue seeking legal or intelligence means to bring him to justice.
The former contractor is viewed by supporters, many of them anti-American leftists and anarchists, as a whistleblower who exposed improper activities by the agency. His critics regard him as a traitor who damaged U.S. national security by disclosing NSA surveillance, encryption, and other sensitive secrets.
NSA Director Michael Rogers said last week he doubted a deal with Snowden for the return of documents could be worked out.
Asked if he favored amnesty for Snowden in exchange for the return of NSA documents, Rogers said: "That’s not my decision. But in the digital age we're living in, the idea of controlling once it's out there I think is very problematic."
Rogers said the documents may be out of Snowden’s control and thus difficult to recover. The document cache "certainly doesn’t have the control I wish it had," he said during an interview with Bloomberg News June 3.
Rogers also said he regards Snowden as "arrogant" and believes he "possibly" could have been a Russian spy, although he added that the former contractor "probably" is not a recruited Russian agent.
"I fundamentally disagree with what he did," Rogers said. "I believe it was wrong, I believe it was illegal."
Rogers said the NSA has a "fairly good idea" of how many documents were taken by Snowden, who used a combination of methods to gain access to and remove the NSA documents, many of them classified at the "top secret" level and higher.
Snowden told NBC News last month that he does not believe he can receive a fair trial in the United States. "When people say, ‘Why don’t you go home and face the music?’ I say you have to understand that the music is not an open court and a fair trial," he said.
Snowden said he never intended to end up in Russia and had been booked for a flight to Cuba and Latin American but was held up in Moscow after the U.S. government revoked his passport.
Snowden also claimed he destroyed the NSA document cache before arriving in Russia and denied having access to the digital material from a networked computer.
"I have no relationship with the Russian government at all," Snowden said. "I'm not supported by the Russian government. I'm not taking money from the Russian government. I'm not a spy, which is the real question."
Snowden indicated he is prepared to talk to the U.S. government. Asked when he decided to flee with the documents, Snowden told NBC: "I think given the ongoing investigation, that's something better not to get into in a news interview, but I'd be happy to discuss these things with the [U.S.] government."
Michelle Van Cleave, former national counterintelligence executive, a senior counterspy policymaker, said any deal for Snowden’s return would likely involve the Russians.
"If the Russians let him go, it will be because they’ve 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."
In a related development, Snowden’s Russian lawyer told a state-run Russian news agency last week that his client is preparing to extend his stay in Moscow beyond the current asylum period ending in August.
Anatoly Kucherena, the lawyer, said he and Snowden were working on extending his status, Interfax reported June 4.
Snowden told Brazil’s Globo television June 1 that he would like to relocate to Brazil. "The period of asylum granted to me by Russia ends at the beginning of August. If Brazil offered me asylum I would accept with pleasure," Snowden was quoted as saying. "I would very much like to live in Brazil."
U.S. intelligence and security officials had indicated earlier they are open to dealing with Snowden.
Rick Leggett, head of a special NSA task force in charge of the Snowden leaks, told CBS’ 60 Minutes in December that offering some type of legal deal to Snowden in exchange for the return of classified NSA documents is "worth having a conversation about."
Michael Daniel, the White House cybersecurity director, then said in a speech to the U.S. Naval Academy in March that he is open to discussions with Snowden to learn the full extent of the compromised NSA material.
"I think it would be very valuable for us to actually understand in much greater detail everything that was taken," Daniel said.
NSA Director Army Gen. Keith Alexander, before he retired as head of the agency, voiced opposition to a deal for Snowden’s return.
"This is analogous to a hostage-taker taking 50 people hostage, shooting 10 and then say, ‘If you give me full amnesty, I’ll let the other 40 go.’ What do you do?" Alexander said, also on CBS. "I think people have to be held accountable for their actions."
Raimondi, the Justice Department spokesman, noted that Attorney General Eric Holder has said Snowden is "not a whistleblower."
"He is accused of leaking classified information and there is no question his actions have inflicted serious harms on our national security," Raimondi said.
President Obama was asked about Snowden during an NBC interview Friday and said he would not comment on the specifics of the case. But Obama noted that the leaks "had a very significant impact on our intelligence operations around the world; had a grave impact on a number of our diplomatic relationships; compromised our ability to gain insight into some of the work that our adversaries do."
"There's no doubt that this is an area of legitimate debate," Obama said of NSA activities. "And I think there are patriots on both sides who recognize, on the one hand, we've got to make sure that our eyes and ears are open for potential threats. What's also true is we got to make sure not only that our privacy is protected, but that the manner in which our intelligence services operate internationally comports with our values and our ideas."
Daniel, special assistant to the president for cyber security, said in a speech March 28 that the Snowden damage will persist for decades.
"Make no mistake: We are going to be dealing with the fallout from that for all of your careers, and the impact that that has had on our national security will reverberate for decades," Daniel told Naval Academy midshipmen.
Snowden disclosures reveal U.S. electronic spying targets along with "techniques and tools that are no longer available to us," Daniel said.