Lawmakers: Deal to spare Snowden from espionage charges unlikely

Privacy advocates and some lawmakers hailed Edward Snowden as a whistle-blower when he revealed details about classified surveillance programs but it is becoming increasingly unlikely that he’ll avoid trial for espionage if returned to the United States.

Federal officials have expressed interest in a possible deal to bring Snowden back to the U.S. from Russia, where he has received temporary asylum.

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But on Sunday, senior lawmakers from both parties suggested Snowden had waived his whistle-blower defense by fleeing instead of staying in the country to defend his actions, as Daniel Ellsberg did more than 40 years ago when he leaked the Pentagon Papers. 

“I think we have existing whistle-blower capabilities here in the United States. On a regular basis, whistle-blowers come forward, give information to Congress, and we attempt to address those issues,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on ABC’s “This Week.”

“Going to China and going to Russia was not the solution to the problem. It compounds our difficulties in the United States with respect to al Qaeda,” he added.

Snowden’s leverage to negotiate a favorable deal with the Justice Department is undermined by the expectation that his asylum will likely last only one year. And security experts believe whatever national intelligence secrets he possesses are now likely in Russian hands.


Lon Snowden, Edward Snowden’s father, on Sunday urged his son not to cut any deal with U.S. authorities that would spare him from a trial on espionage and theft charges. 

“What I would like is for this to be vetted in open court for the American people to have all of the facts,” Lon Snowden told ABC’s “This Week” in an interview. “What I have seen is much political theater.

“The only deal will be true justice. You know, justice should be the goal of our government and is also the goal of a civil society,” he said.

Lon Snowden plans to travel to Russia “very soon” in hopes of meeting with his son and has already obtained a visa, according to his attorney Bruce Fein.

Snowden has his defenders on Capitol Hill, such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.), a senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but they are in the minority.

In a C-SPAN interview Friday, Rohrabacher said Snowden’s critics were wrong. He even tried to paint Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to grant him asylum as verging on benevolent.

“Snowden was just alerting us to our government getting out of hand. Russia accepting him for asylum. I think was not as hostile an act as was being portrayed,” Rohrabacher told C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program.

Most lawmakers in recent days, however, have been sharply critical of Snowden.

Royce pointedly disagreed with Rohrabacher on Sunday.

“We have to keep in mind here that the conundrum we're in is one in which al Qaeda is first trying to learn how we track them,” he said.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Snowden did not have to go public with classified information and hurt U.S. national security as a result of his actions.

“The reality is, I don't think he needed to undermine America's national security to pursue whatever he thought his conscience led him to do,” he said. “And I do believe there's a process by which he could have ultimately pursued his interest in a way that doesn't undermine the national security of the United States.”

Menendez said Snowden revealed intelligence sources and methods to the nation’s enemies.

There is more concern in Congress over how Snowden, a relatively low-level federal contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton, had access to sensitive secrets than over the scope of the spying programs he made public.

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), a member of the House Democratic leadership, expressed confidence in President Obama’s management of domestic surveillance and raised greater concern over what he called “bad actors” such as Snowden.

“The president can do a lot of things, issuing orders to make sure that these contractors, for instance, are going through a process that would allow us to know what kind of people they're hiring and to weed out these bad actors because that's what happened in this particular case,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: “We need to ask questions, like, why did Mr. Snowden have access to the information he had? It couldn't have been part of his job.”

McCain, who appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” said he didn’t disagree with any of the proposals Obama made Friday for greater transparency and oversight of the domestic spying programs.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, faulted Obama for not adequately explaining and defending the surveillance programs to the American public. And he dismissed Obama’s proposed reforms as “window dressing.”

But McCaul also rejected a proposal by privacy advocates that public defenders should be allowed access to proceedings of courts set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to object to surveillance requests.

He said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that it “would slow down the efficacy and efficiency of our counterterrorism investigation.”

There is little that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) agree on, but they share the conviction that Snowden undermined national security without justification.

“No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” Obama told reporters Friday.

Boehner called Snowden a “traitor” in June, shortly after the former government contractor leaked classified information to the British newspaper The Guardian.