For two years Edward Snowden has been living in Moscow, where he has been granted temporary asylum, and where he has been living with his girlfriend without much hope of return to his home country. Snowden is, of course, wanted for his actions during the time he worked for the NSA in Hawaii, when he stole huge amounts of sensitive documents, which he used to show the world the extent of NSA snooping.
These documents revealed a number of global surveillance programs that have been a huge issue in the media ever since, prompting a global discourse about the legitimacy of both the US and international spy agencies’ actions in relation to human rights. This debate has encompassed mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and the average person’s right to privacy in their own home – either on the internet or phone (including the NSA’s now famous use of section 215 of the Patriot Act to carry out the bulk collection of U.S. phone-call data.)
Since January, however, news seems to have been building about the possibility of the former contractor returning home to the US – a notion which has before this year seemed highly unlikely due to the charges held against him. These charges, which were filed by federal prosecutors in 2013, are for theft of government property, and for two counts of violating the Espionage Act by the unauthorized communication of national defense information.
With each of these charges carrying a possible prison term of ten years, the likelihood of Snowden leaving Russia to return to the US to face trial (possibly landing him in prison for up to thirty years) seemed unlikely – very unlikely.
In January, however, during an interview with James Bamford, Snowden discusses a news article in the New York Times in which the new director of the NSA, Admiral Michael S. Rogers, admits that the damage done by Snowden was nowhere near as bad as had previously been suggested,
‘So this is really interesting. The NSA chief in this who replaced Keith Alexander, the former NSA director, is calling the alleged damage from the last year’s revelations to be much more insignificant than it was represented publicly over the last year. We were led to believe that the sky was going to fall.’
Snowden then explains why he thinks some members of the intelligence community wish to exaggerate his ‘crimes’,
‘That’s a significant departure from the claims of the former NSA director, Keith Alexander. And it’s sort of a pattern that we’ve seen where the only U.S. officials who claim that these revelations cause damage rather than serve the public good were the officials that were personally embarrassed by it. For example, the chairs of the oversight committees in Congress, the former NSA director himself.’
Snowden’s claims now appear to be garnering support in the most unlikely of places. Earlier this week, former Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that he does see a possible way for Snowden to (at some point inthe future) strike a deal with the US that would allow him to return home without serving a prison sentence,
“I certainly think there could be a basis for a resolution that everybody could ultimately be satisfied with… I think the possibility exists.”
Holder also comments that ‘we are in a different place as a result of the Snowden disclosures,’ and admits that Snowden’s ‘actions spurred a necessary debate’. Holder ran the Department of Justice from February 2009 until last April, so was in charge when the three criminal charges were originally brought against Snowden . This allows him (much better than most other administration officials) to pass comment on the situation, and is not the first time he has commented on the possibility of Snowden returning home.
In January of last year Holder said in an interview that the US would likely be willing to ‘engage in conversation’ with Snowden if he returned to US soil, although he did rule out, at that point, any granting of clemency. The fact that his new remarks go even further, and even suggest that Snowden’s leaks may have had a positive impact on US’s intelligence infrastructure (by allowing the conversation about its fairness), is, according to Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner , an enormous step in the right direction,
‘The former attorney general’s recognition that Snowden’s actions led to meaningful changes is welcome. This is significant … I don’t think we’ve seen this kind of respect from anybody at a Cabinet level before.’
Whether this all turns out to be nothing more than hot air, or whether this truly is forward momentum in Snowden’s case for repatriation to the US remains to be seen. Let’s not forget, after all, that Holder is no longer in a position of authority when it comes to these matters, and Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman reinforced on Monday that in reality the US’s position to Snowden’s charges still remains the same,
‘This is an ongoing case so I am not going to get into specific details, but I can say our position regarding bringing Edward Snowden back to the United States to face charges has not changed.’
One thing, therefore, is for certain: Snowden is happy to remain in Russia for now, and without some pretty strong guarantees of safety and clemency should he return, is unlikely to ever be in a huge rush to go home,
‘Mike Hayden, former NSA, CIA director … was talking about how I was – everybody in Russia is miserable… and they talk about Russia like it’s the worst place on earth. Russia’s great.’