During an interview with National Security Adviser Susan Rice that aired Sunday, CBS' Lesley Stahl asked Rice if the government was considering offering amnesty to Edward Snowden. Stop asking this, CBS. You're getting a lot of things wrong — and it will never, ever happen.
The conversation between Stahl and Rice aired a week after 60 Minutes' now-infamous whitewash of the National Security Agency by reporter John Miller, during which the same question was asked. Rice gave a more forceful answer to the question than did Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA's internal security review. Ledgett said the idea of amnesty was worth considering. Rice did not.
Stahl: You know, Snowden is believed to have a million-and-a-half more documents that have never been released. Would you — would the president consider granting him amnesty in exchange for him never releasing any more documents?
Rice: Well Leslie, we don't think Snowden deserves amnesty. We believe he should come back — he should be sent back, and he should have his day in court. ... The position of the United States is that he ought to come back and face justice.
The president said as much this week, as CBS itself reported. So why ask again?
But moreover: Of course the government won't do that! Why would it? This is an administration that has prosecuted more leakers than any administration in a century — combined. At The New Yorker, Amy Davidson explained why amnesty might make sense after CBS asked the question last week. That doesn't mean that the administration — which has been adamant in its defense of the NSA and its surveillance — would consider actually doing so. It would be a huge de facto admission of error on Obama's part, an admission that his revelations were important.
Davidson also points out some reasons why amnesty wouldn't be helpful to the government. For example, because Snowden probably doesn't have any documents at all at this point — and members of the media do. It's baffling that this point is still lost on CBS, even after it was pointed out repeatedly over the past week. Reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras apparently have the entire document set, as, it seems, does Greenwald's former employer, The Guardian. The Washington Post's Barton Gellman has some number of them. A number of other outlets have been investigating and reporting on documents: ProPublica, The Times, and foreign papers covering per-country leaks.
But Snowden — according to Snowden — has none. In October, he described his efforts to keep the documents out of Chinese and Russian hands, including stashing them on portable hard drives until he could hand them over to Greenwald. How's Snowden supposed to cut a deal to turn over documents if he doesn't have them and there are reporters — eager for scoops — that do? What sense does that make?
Stahl's 1.5-million document figure doesn't even match the 1.7 million that Miller asked about last week. How many documents are out there isn't clear to anyone who isn't in possession of them, including the government. Earlier this month, The Times reported that the NSA didn't know the scale of the leak, but CBS still went with 1.5 million or more in back-to-back weeks. When Ledgett was presented with the 1.7 million figure, he said simply, "I wouldn't dispute that." Of course he wouldn't! The more documents that Snowden is rumored to take, the more his actions seem reckless and inappropriate. What's a "document," anyway? A file? A page in a file? It's so vague a term as to be useless.
And then there was the predication for the question of amnesty itself. Miller asked Ledgett, "He's already said, 'If I got amnesty, I would come back.' Given the potential damage to national security, what would your thought on making a deal be?" Um, where'd he say that? The government hasn't heard it: When Stahl asked Rice on Sunday if Snowden had "proposed such an arrangement" affording him amnesty, Rice replied, "Not that I'm aware of." Did Miller even ask the administration before making that claim? Did he ask Snowden's lawyers? In a statement to BuzzFeed today, the leaker's lawyer, Ben Wizner of the ACLU, was clear: "Edward Snowden would never offer information in exchange for asylum and he has never suggested otherwise. Reports to the contrary are false."
The idea that the NSA might grant amnesty doesn't do the agency any harm, of course, at a time when its public relations efforts are faring poorly. There is also at least one good reason amnesty seems like it could be possible. When asked about Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's flat denial of NSA data collection before a Senate committee earlier this year, Rice waved the incident off as an example of someone "inadvertently [making] a false representation." In other words: misdeeds don't always result in people having to "face justice." So you never know.