As NSA secrets leaked by Edward Snowden continue to emerge in the press on a regular basis, there have begun to be murmurs from the NSA of offering Snowden amnesty in order to receive his cooperation. Rick Leggett, the man charged with heading the NSA’s special Snowden task force, acknowledged that it would be “worth having a conversation” with Snowden.
“I would need assurances that the remainder of the data would be secured, and my bar for those assurances would be very high,” Leggett elaborated. While it’s nice to imagine a world where the United States sees the righteousness in whistleblowing and works to improve its programs rather than scapegoating Snowden, these rumors of amnesty won’t happen for several reasons:
1. Snowden Already Shared the Information
At this point, it’s not as simple as making Snowden promise to stop releasing more documents. Though Snowden says he’s already handed over all of the information he took while working for the NSA to journalists, many believe he still has over one million more classified documents in his possession that have yet to be shared.
Either way, the 200,000 documents that the media is and will continue to slowly release have the potential to do a lot of damage on their own. Snowden’s silence moving forward won’t prevent the media from working with the information they’ve already received.
2. Even Un-leaked Data May Have Already Been Compromised
While Snowden sought asylum in Hong Kong and Russia, U.S. authorities have difficulty believing that the Chinese and Russian governments didn’t somehow help themselves to the information – with Snowden’s permission or otherwise.
Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA and CIA, has declared he would “lose all respect for China’s Ministry of State Security and Russia’s FSB if they have not already fully harvested Snowden’s digital data trove.” Hayden’s comment is pretty telling, and an indication that the United States would be sure to get their hands on foreign intelligence if situations were reversed. Evidently, all’s fair in international spy games.
Assuming these countries have accessed the documents, the U.S. must contemplate whether it’s worth trying to keep secrets that are already in the possession of two of its superpower frenemies.
3. Authorities Consider Snowden the Ultimate Enemy
After Snowden was labeled a traitor by many in Congress, with some even calling for Snowden’s death, we’d be kidding ourselves to believe that Snowden would be able to suddenly resume life in America as a private citizen again.
In an upcoming interview with 60 Minutes, NSA head General Keith Alexander goes so far as to compare Snowden to a man who has taken 50 hostages, killed 10, and now wants amnesty in exchange for not killing the other 40. In likening Snowden to a mass murderer, it’s clear that the powers that be consider Snowden too much of an enemy to receive a free pass for his whistleblowing.
4. The Precedent
The U.S. government’s best deterrent in stopping people from taking similar actions in the future is by condemning the likes of Snowden and Chelsea Manning and making their lives as miserable as possible. “What we don’t want is the next person to do the same thing, race off to Hong Kong and to Moscow with another set of data, knowing they can strike the same deal,” said General Alexander.
5. Snowden May Be Too Principled
Although he’s previously expressed that he would return to the United States if he were granted amnesty, it’s doubtful he’d agree to the extensive terms that the government would offer. Snowden had a good idea of what his life would be like after becoming a whistleblower, and he made the decision that the public’s need to know this classified information was worth the consequences. If anything, the fact that he’s not currently dead or in prison already means things are going better than he expected, so why would he drop his principled stance of sharing the details of mass surveillance now?
It may never come to fruition, but the fact that the NSA is even entertaining the notion of giving Snowden amnesty is revealing in itself. Just think of how juicy and alarming the information that Snowden is thought to have not yet leaked must be for the government to negotiate with someone who has already shed light on so many of their secrets.
Photo Credit: Mike Herbst