Can Edward Snowden and the United States cut a deal?

Despite a potential plea deal with the Justice Department, Edward Snowden said in an interview he is concerned about the message his punishment would send to future whistleblowers. 

Andrew Kelly
American whistleblower Edward Snowden delivers remarks via video link from Moscow to attendees at a discussion regarding an International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers in Manhattan, New York September 24, 2015. The event, hosted by global advocacy group Avaaz, was held to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly.

Although Edward Snowden is ready to accept a prison sentence in exchange for a safe return home, he has a clear message to future whistleblowers: Do not be afraid.

Any sentence he'd accept would have to be light enough so that other whistleblowers won't get discouraged.

In an interview with the BBC, the controversial whistleblower who leaked documents about the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program says he has offered in multiple instances to serve prison time, but the American government has yet to respond.

“I’ve volunteered to go to prison with the government many times. What I won’t do is I won’t serve as a deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations,” Snowden said in the interview conducted in Moscow, where he has been in exile for the past two years. In 2013, he emerged in the international spotlight for his disclosure of the NSA’s monitoring of cell phones and Internet traffic, sparking a widespread and heated debate on privacy and national security.

Snowden’s legal adviser, Ben Wizner, tells The Christian Science Monitor that Snowden's latest interview reaffirms his longstanding willingness to compromise with the Justice Department.

“He’s not going to accept felony convictions with the loss of civil rights, and he wouldn’t want any prison sentence that would serve as a deterrent to other people considering courageous acts in the public interest, but that doesn’t mean he categorically has ruled out some jail time,” Wizner says.

Snowden’s desire for a fair resolution with the US government isn’t rooted in a fear for punishment, Wizner continues, “but that he doesn’t want to contribute to a climate of fear of retaliation.”

Snowden has been charged with three felony counts, including violations under the US Espionage Act for revealing classified information. Although he said he would consider a plea deal, he has not said how long he’s willing to spend in prison.

In March, former Gen. David Petraeus and his prosecutors agreed on a plea deal in his leak case in which he provided binders of classified information to his lover. Petraeus pled guilty to a misdemeanor and got off with a $40,000 fine and two years’ probation. One of Snowden’s legal advisers, Jesselyn Radack, has said her client would accept a similar plea bargain.

But the former CIA director’s arrangement may have been an exception that other whistleblowers – namely, those without ties to top Army officials and the president – are not well-connected enough to secure.

In the case of Chelsea Manning, who unveiled more than 700,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks, the ex-soldier was dealt a much harsher penalty: 35 years in prison. Under the Espionage Act, Snowden could face similar sentencing.

"So far, they've said they won't torture me, which is a start, I think, but we haven't gotten much further than that," Snowden said.

Richard Rashke, an author and journalist whose book, Whistleblower’s Dilemma, is set to come out in December, tells The Christian Science Monitor he isn’t convinced a plea bargain will be attained, especially considering Snowden’s reluctance to admit to actual wrongdoing.

“Is he going to give up the opportunity to fully air why he did what he did in the witness chair, or is he going to say that getting the truth out is worth spending a number of years in jail?” Mr. Rashke asks. He says he isn’t so sure Snowden will choose the latter.

In May, Snowden and his lawyers said they’ve yet to receive any guarantee of a fair, open trial.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder has said there is a possibility that the Justice Department would work out a deal with Snowden if he were to return.

“We are in a different place as a result of the Snowden disclosures,” Holder told Yahoo News in July, emphasizing the importance of the debates regarding national security and privacy rights that his leak had catalyzed.

“I certainly think there could be a basis for a resolution that everybody could ultimately be satisfied with,” he continued. “I think the possibility exists.”

But Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch, has said the US government stands by its charges against Snowden. And Michael Hayden, former NSA director, told the BBC he thinks Snowden will most likely die in Moscow.

Wizner did not comment on the current status of their correspondence with the US government regarding the plea. "We're still waiting for them to call us back,” Snowden said in the interview.

Earlier this summer, the Courage Foundation launched a campaign of support for the whistleblower as well as for the protection of whistleblowers worldwide. A separate petition had gathered more than 167,000 signatures, calling for President Obama to pardon Snowden, but the White House rejected it in July.

Considering the government’s currently handling of Snowden’s case, Rashke says this climate of fear will intimidate future whistleblowers from coming forward.

“[Already], the vast majority of people who see crimes do not whistleblow because of their fear of retaliation,” Rashke explains. “Right at the moment, this whole fiasco is really discouraging whistleblowing.”

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