Plotting the Snowden plea bargain

December 16, 2013

CBS News gave the National Security Agency an early Christmas present on Sunday—a segment on “60 Minutes.” The title of the segment, “NSA Speaks Out on Snowden, Spying,” telegraphed the network’s generosity. After taking beatings in the press and in Congress, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander reached out to “invite” (which is how CBS News put it) the program to receive the NSA’s version of the Snowden affair. “What they got was a chance to make their case,” said correspondent John Miller.

The segment contained the usual NSA evasions and elisions (see the blog work of Jesselyn Radack for examples), so besides the novelty of network cameras recording images inside the puzzle palace, the only non-trivial moments of the broadcast came when Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA task force in charge of Snowden damage assessment, gave a positive response to Miller’s question of what he thought of the idea of acceding to Edward Snowden’s request for amnesty.

“What would your thought on making a deal be?” asked Miller. Ledgett responded:

So, my personal view is, yes, it’s worth having a conversation about. 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.

Ledgett’s trial balloon was aloft for about one second before Gen. Alexander appeared on the screen to throw a wad of buckshot at it. Playing the bad cop to Ledgett’s good cop, he said, “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?” Then he added, “I think people have to be held accountable for their actions.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney relieved the balloon of its remaining helium in a briefing today, saying that the administration’s opposition to amnesty for Snowden had not changed.

Yet why would the NSA, which “60 Minutes” describes as ultra-controlling of what was said and seen during the visit in its “behind the scenes” video, allow Ledgett to entertain the idea at all on national TV, even if he was just expressing his “personal view,” when we all know that NSA officials have no “personal views,” especially ones they can share on TV?

The best answer that comes to mind is that Ledgett was authorized to open negotiations with Snowden via “60 Minutes.” Previously, Gen. Alexander has said Snowden shared between 50,000 and 200,000 documents with reporters. In the broadcast, Ledgett allows that perhaps 1.7 million documents could have gone out the door with Snowden, including a 31,000-document “road map” of “what we know, what we don’t know” about foreign powers, as Ledgett put it.

“It is the keys to the kingdom,” Ledgett said.

If these keys were leaked, they have not yet been published. The kingdom’s half-hearted amnesty/plea bargain overture was obviously designed to sway Snowden, who can’t be happy living under the thumb of Russia’s Federal Security Service.

How exactly would an amnesty deal or a plea bargain work? Snowden was charged in June with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications information with an unauthorized party, as the Popehat blog delineated, and if convicted he could spend decades in prison. Would the government reduce or eliminate these charges if he agreed to come home, returned the keys to the kingdom, disabled the “doomsday cache” he’s rumored to have hidden in the cloud, and convinced journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman into returning to the NSA the unpublished documents he gave them?

Such a deal would be unprecedented, but both sides have an incentive to negotiate. By holding out the possibility — however remote — of amnesty or a plea bargain, the government signals to Snowden its willingness to forgive previous transgressions if he agrees not to liberate the keys to the kingdom. (The high bar of “assurances” to which Ledgett referred.) Such a deal might appeal to Snowden, who seems to be enjoying his Russia interlude as much as you would a similar stay at a North Korean minimum security prison. The political hurdles for such a deal would be unusually high, as it would further undermine President Barack Obama’s already tattered national security credentials. But seeing as Obama doesn’t have to run again, the credentials won’t matter much longer. His people could spin the Snowden amnesty deal — let’s say, two years in prison but unlimited Internet play time for the blond jailbird — as being in the best interests of the nation.

If you read Gen. Alexander’s imperfect analogy to a hostage taker closely, he doesn’t seem to be completely ruling out a deal, either. Snowden hasn’t “shot” anybody—he’s broken inviolable laws, but he’s not got any blood on his hands. Prosecutors cut deals with defendants all the time without many people accusing them of letting crooks get off easy. I’ll bet Gen. Alexander would make that deal if assured that future Snowden NSA leaks would be stopped.

But maybe the NSA line hasn’t been baited for Snowden alone. Maybe a deal with Russia is also in play. By volunteering the fact that Snowden, and maybe the journalists he’s leaked to, hold the keys to the kingdom, Ledgett increased Snowden’s market value by an order of a million. By offering and withdrawing amnesty on TV, the U.S. government could be playing both Snowden and Russia simultaneously. If Snowden spurns the deal, the U.S. government might attempt to persuade the Russians, never sticklers for the rule of law, to declare Snowden a spy and therefore eligible for exchange for some high-value Russian spy currently in U.S. custody. Or, for the next Russian spy busted, making Snowden like the player traded for a future draft pick.

Snowden is in play. The next move is his.


I’m always in play. Send offers of amnesty, asylum, and forgiveness to My Twitter feed would never betray its country. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.


PHOTO: Screen grab of Gen. Keith Alexander appearing on 60 Minutes, Dec. 15, 2013


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There’s no deal for Ed to make, because he’s just an ignorant tool. A tool used by media hell-bent to get any kind of story that they know the anti gov types thrive on… propagandists like the Chinese… and anarchists like the WikiLeaks people. The toothpaste is already out of the tube. They’ll be doling out little bits of this nonsense forever. It’s in serious doubt that he was even conscious of all the information that he was giving away. He just threw it out there into the wind, and whatever happens, happens.

For as many confused people who are shouting that this idiot is a hero… there are many many more, who are considerably more powerful, cursing his name as they go to bed each night. The public will eventually forget Ed and move onto something else, and then the governments who once catered to their people’s temporary “hero”, will follow. Then when there’s nothing left in it for any of them, he will be alone. I would not want to be him.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

dd606..well said. Snowden is an idiot who didn’t think through much of this. Now he is in exile in Russia and his 3 minutes of fame is essentially over. If he releases any more documents..he runs the risk of facing Putin’s wrath. This fool has placed himself in more danger than he can possibly imagine. In the U.S. he has rights. In Russia..Putin can make him disappear if he wants to and there would be no accountability. Shot execution style in some elevator somewhere by unknown assailants. Sound familiar?

Posted by xyz2055 | Report as abusive

Snowden may not have considered every end game, but clearly he had enough sense to lodge a doomsday device. The documents already released clarify the scope of his “U.S. rights”. The looming question, “who’s government is this?” perdures.

Posted by DrDavidBanner | Report as abusive

Ah, the spy game; anyone can play, and seldom do they have to prove their theories.

The amnesty talk was a semaphore, a signal that NOT releasing the keys is a path to a future.

And, Alexander is irrelevant, he will be gone in a few months anyway. But I agree he was playing bad cop, signalling that there were different camps within NSA, leaving a window open for the inevitable negotiation.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

I’d thunk Snowden be far too valuable to give up in that scenario and not treat like a royal child!

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

Snowden is bummed that people are already bored with him. No one is really chasing him any more. “I have information to prove that spy agencies have been conducting secret surveillance operations. Move me to Brazil (now that it’s winter in Russia) and I can help keep Brazil safe from….spying.”

Wow. Secret surveillance operations. And all this time, I though spy agencies just made cookies.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

If Snowden has the sense of a half-grown goose, he will not trust the US government, no matter what promises are made.

One recent survey where people were asked “On a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being the lowest), how much do you trust the government?” The majority said “2” and that seemed high to me.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

The KGB, I mean the NSA is full of rip-off career climbers with a bent for sadism. They are the result of the belief by our leaders that cruelty is the best motivator for the stupid masses who are weak and deserve their enslavement simply because they are weak. Anyway, the NSA guys know exactly how to spin the fear for purposes of manipulation. We are now the soviet union. The problem with that is that it guarentees failure, because only the immoral can support it. Anyone with any capability will withhold their effort so as not to benefit evil people. Indeed, we are at that point where if you work to better the country you by necessity work to help evil. There is no way to avoid it. Sure, as I mentioned, there are the immoral that will support it, but you know they are that way because that is their only skill. That is, they chose to be total douche bags because that is the only advantage they have. If they were in a merit based society, they would have no hope.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive