Good news, it seems, for NSA leaker Edward Snowden: A man expected to take over soon as the NSA's top civilian says amnesty is something "worth having a conversation about." But before Snowden starts packing up his stuff to head home from his Russian exile, he should probably take a minute and realize this deal isn't going to happen.
First, what happened: Richard Ledgett, the NSA's Snowden leak czar, filmed an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes (set to air tonight) where he suggested amnesty was on the table. Snowden currently faces charges of espionage, theft and conversion of government property.
So here are just three reasons why that won't happen:
It's not for Ledgett to say.
Ledgett may yet be the next deputy director of the NSA with the surprise retirement of John Inglis, but that doesn't override the powers and responsibilities of the federal government, which remains unmoved on the whole matter of, y'know, their stance that this threatened national security. (They typically don't let those kinds of things go.)
Our position has not changed. Mr Snowden is facing very serious charges and should return to the United States to face them.
- State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf
It also doesn't change the fact that the deputy is mostly in charge of the day-to-day operations. That wasn't the case with Inglis, who did more than his job technically entails, but it's widely expected that the NSA will be going through some top-to-bottom changes with this recent embarrassment, and there's no telling what the formal responsibilities of the deputy's job will be. There is also no telling who the deputy will report to, as NSA chief General Keith Alexander will step down with his deputy in the new year. (For what it's worth, Alexander says this would actually be an enticing treat for those thinking of copying Snowden, saying: "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?")
One would think that there would have to be someone in the lead chair before a theoretical heir got to make statements like offering amnesty to one of the more wanted men in the world.
It's almost impossible to reach Ledgett's amnesty conditions.
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.
What Ledgett wants is, essentially, all his stuff back, no questions asked, like a Craigslist ad for a missing iPhone. The problem with that is that there are other people with some of his stuff: journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, for two, still have possession of the entire Snowden data trove.
Plus, Greenwald suggested that others have some, too:
That's totally unsurprising, because unless you're in the cast of Scandal, it's impossible to believe Snowden wouldn't farm stolen sensitive documents out more, so as to increase his leverage. Over at Ars Technica, Cyrus Farivar writes that researchers like Jacob Appelbaum and journalists like Barton Gellman, Ryan Gallagher and others could have documents, too.
He doesn't qualify for whistleblower status
This is for a legal eagle far smarter than I, so this is an honest question: What would an amnesty look like, anyway, since Snowden is actually ineligible to be named a whistleblower?
To qualify as a whistleblower, Snowden must have disclosed information on illegal acts – but this is the NSA we're talking about, and everything was covered in the Patriot Act or by the FISA court. Whistleblower protection also only comes into play for non-contractors, which Snowden was while working at the NSA.
All this said, it doesn't help, either, that the NSA doesn't even know how many documents Snowden has in the first place. The olive branch feels very much like part and parcel of the reputation-repairing PR offensive Ledgett himself refers to. None of this portends well for Snowden being back in the U.S. in time for Christmas dinner.