National Security Agency officials are considering a controversial amnesty that would return Edward Snowden to the United States, in exchange for the extensive document trove the whistleblower took from the agency.
An amnesty, which does not have the support of the State Department, would represent a surprising denouement to an international drama that has lasted half a year. It is particularly unexpected from a surveillance agency that has spent months insisting that Snowden’s disclosures have caused vast damage to US national security.
The NSA official in charge of assessing the alleged damage caused by Snowden’s leaks, Richard Ledgett, told CBS News an amnesty still remains controversial within the agency, which has spent the past six months defending itself against a global outcry and legislative and executive proposals to restrain its broad surveillance activities.
“My personal view is, yes, it’s worth having a conversation about,” Ledgett, who is under consideration to become the agency’s top civilian, said in an interview slated to air Sunday evening on 60 Minutes. “I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured, and my bar for those assurances would be very high. It would be more than just an assertion on his part.”
Snowden is in Russia, having been granted a year-long asylum that has sparked international intrigue. In June, the Justice Department filed a criminal complaint charging the 30-year old former contractor with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and “wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person”, although he has not yet been indicted.
Any amnesty would have to come through the Justice Department, which did not respond to a request for comment.
The NSA’s director, General Keith Alexander, told CBS that granting Snowden amnesty would reward the leaks and potentially incentivize future ones. But Alexander is retiring in the spring, joining his civilian deputy John C Inglis, and Ledgett is rumored to be a top candidate to replace Inglis.
On Sunday, the State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Ledgett was stating a “personal view”.
“Our position has not changed,” Harf said. “Mr Snowden is facing very serious charges and should return to the United States to face them.”
Alexander’s predecessor at the NSA, retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, also rejected an amnesty for Snowden.
“I wouldn’t do it. That simply motivates future Snowdens,” said Hayden, who began the bulk collection of Americans’ phone and internet metadata in 2001 as a response to 9/11 that was initially unknown and unauthorized by Congress and the courts.
But Hayden also said that Snowden had kickstarted an important debate in the US about the appropriate balance between liberty and security.
“Snowden was important. He accelerated a debate, he misshaped the debate, but … the debate was coming,” Hayden said, on NBC.
Snowden told the New York Times in October that he divested himself of the documents before leaving Hong Kong for Russia, which he suggested was a preventive measure to keep the documents out of the hands of Russian intelligence. Lack of access to the documents, which are now in the hands of journalists, would likely complicate the “assurances” Ledgett indicated the government would require for any amnesty.
The NSA does not believe that Snowden’s documents have escaped the collection capabilities of its Russian and Chinese counterparts; a senior official told the New York Times on Saturday that the government may never know how much material Snowden took from the agency.
Here’s a recent bit that ran on 60 Minutes.
Read more at the guardian.com