The administration wants Snowden back badly enough that it has let this singular aspect cloud its judgement. Obama recently stated he won’t be meeting with Putin, stating Russia’s harboring of Snowden as a factor (rather than Russia’s multiple issues with human rights). Rather than engage in the debate Obama claimed he “welcomed,” the administration is circling the wagons, as evidenced in the petty statement it issued in reference to Rep. Justin Amash’s NSA-defunding amendment. Don’t govern angry, as they say.
There are plenty of people who believe Snowden is a hero. Many others believe the opposite. The problem is the middle ground is pretty much nonexistent. Allowing Snowden to go free would appease the former, but allow him to continue exposing the NSA’s surveillance programs. Locking him up wouldn’t do much either, other than allow the government to avenge its embarrassment. It won’t stop the leaks, however, at least not if Snowden’s “dead man’s switch” works as intended. The Guardian is already in possession of thousands of documents. Capturing Snowden will only hasten their release.
Over at the National Review (of all places), Robert Zubrin has a suggestion that might satisfy many on both sides of the issue. (H/T to Reason.)
The United States should give former NSA contractor Edward Snowden immunity from prosecution in exchange for congressional testimony.
It’s an interesting angle. Although Zubrin declares that Snowden “certainly violated the law and may have committed treason,” there’s something to his suggestion. It’s certainly preferable to what the US is currently offering Snowden: indefinite detention preceding a trial, which will then most likely be followed by even more detention.
It may not completely satisfy those who wish to see him punished, but it has to be a better scenario than letting him reside in Russia indefinitely, a country whose motives are rarely pure. On top of that, the US can’t be holding out much hope the Russians will just decide to turn him over, and the administration simply doesn’t have anything to use as leverage.
Pleading, whining, screaming, or demanding that Russia extradite him is simply absurd. Russia never has extradited any defector, and never will, because if it ever did, that would be the last defector it would ever get.
So, as Zubrin points out, exchanging immunity in exchange for thorough questioning seems like the best scenario for the US. If nothing else, it will serve to cut through the defensive rhetoric the NSA has deployed and, if Snowden’s portrayal of what’s happening isn’t entirely accurate, that will be exposed as well.
Snowden and NSA leaders should be brought together face-to-face for questioning in public by a congressional investigatory committee, with both parties allowed to make their points and to counter the assertions of the other. If Snowden is lying, it will come out. If the NSA is lying, it will come out. If either refuses to appear, that party will be discredited.
Now, while the idea has its merits and would allow Snowden to return to America without facing a lengthy prison sentence, it’s not without its potential drawbacks. (And this is assuming the administration would ever agree to this compromise, which is highly doubtful.)
First off, if the administration would offer this compromise, there is no question that it would demand an immediate halt to the leaks. This works in the government’s favor, both by preventing any further exposure of the NSA’s programs, as well as limiting discussion to what’s been leaked previously — much of which has already been discussed somewhat openly (if rather opaquely and “least untruthfully”). Using this as the baseline, the government could easily steer the discussion to well-traveled areas, allowing it to keep other malfeasance under wraps.
Second, this discussion will be going on behind closed doors. Access to the Manning trial was strictly controlled. It took a huge amount of effort just to get a transcriptionist into the press gallery. The access here would be even more limited thanks to the subject matter, which will be designated as “classified,” even if the subject matter is all over the internet. So, the chances of the public receiving any benefit or new knowledge is rather low.
Finally, this scenario, despite being more balanced than the government’s current offering, still favors those who wish to see Snowden prevented from leaking any more documents (or at least, giving the go-ahead from Russia — the documents are already “leaked”). This would halt any further “damage” and put Snowden in a “his word against theirs” situation that can easily be spun by representatives of the intelligence community.
The government has the luxury, thanks to the programs being classified, of not having to prove any of Snowden’s testimony conclusively false. All it has to do is magnify every misstep by Snowden and make loud noises about “exceptionally grave damage to national security” when it’s the NSA’s turn to answer his allegations.
Ultimately though, all of this discussion ignores the fact that there’s a human being in the center of all of this, one that may be willing to make concessions in order to return to his homeland, or go the other way and refuse similar deals on principle. Whatever is most advantageous for both sides of the debate will likely rarely align with what Snowden feels is best for him. Still, the possibility of taking on his former employer and STILL being able to walk free might be very tempting.
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