A year after he shook the world with revelations about the National Security Agency, former contractor Edward Snowden remains holed up in Moscow, barred from coming back to his home country.
Months of wrangling by his supporters have yielded little progress on striking a deal with the U.S. government, which has labeled him a traitor and filed espionage charges against him.
But Snowden wants to come home. That much is clear.
Ben Wizner, his legal adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the ball was in the government’s court, but Snowden would not agree to come home in “ankle bracelets and an orange jumpsuit.”
“The question for the U.S. is would they prefer for Snowden to remain in Russia or would they permit him to be part of the solution, as he wants to be,” he said.
The former contractor “has unique value to the U.S. in fixing a broken system,” he continued, both in terms of civil liberties issues at the NSA as well as in cybersecurity. That could be attractive to the government in working out a deal for his return.
The Obama administration has expressed openness to an agreement returning Snowden to the United States, but has said that all charges cannot be forgiven.
“Let’s be clear, clemency is not on the table,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday.
The chances for a deal to lessen Snowden’s sentence, however, seem slim — at least for the moment.
“As it is now, as I understand it, there are not talks ongoing,” said Beatrice Edwards, executive director at the Government Accountability Project, which is a legal representative of Snowden’s.
The military and intelligence community would go “bonkers” if the U.S. made a deal with Snowden any time soon, said Fordham University law professor Andrew Kent.
“They would see it as almost rewarding his behavior because it was so incredibly flagrant,” he added.
Over time that could change, perhaps after President Obama leaves office or is on his way out the door. In return for a lighter prison sentence and cooperation with federal authorities, Snowden could decide to come back.
“I could see a scenario where that could happen, but we’re nowhere near the moment or the political environment in which that could happen,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University. “I think the real question is are we talking about where Snowden is in a year or where Snowden is in 2018.”
Not only would it be a notch on federal officials’ belt to make a deal so Snowden could be formally convicted of some charges, it would also allow the U.S. to make sure that he and any knowledge he may have does not become the permanent property of the Kremlin, he added.
Plus, it’s a lingering black eye for the U.S. to be constantly chasing a man that some have labeled a hero, and even worse that he's fled into the hands of Russia, which has a weak record on civil liberties.
“I think there’s a long tradition of face-saving humanitarian gestures by lame duck second-term presidents after the election,” Vladeck said.
Since leaving Hong Kong last summer, Snowden has been stuck in Moscow. At first he was stranded in the transit area of Sheremetyevo Airport before Russia granted him temporary asylum.
That runs out on Aug. 1, but in an interview with NBC this week, Snowden said he “of course” would apply for an extension.
“There’s no realistic possibility that he is going to have to leave Russia,” Wizner said. “His situation there is stable in terms of his permission to be there.”
He has also sought out refuge in other countries, from Cuba to Germany to Ecuador.
But many nations have extradition treaties with the U.S. and would not likely want to incur the Obama administration’s wrath just to help out the former government contractor.
If Snowden had managed to find somewhere other than Russia that would take him, analysts said, he probably would already be there by now.
The Obama administration has called for him to come back and own up to his actions.
Secretary of State John Kerry this week said Snowden should “man up” and called him a “coward” for fleeing the country.
Defenders say it’s not that simple.
Snowden has been charged under the Espionage Act, which Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg said would make a fair trial “wholly unavailable” to him.
Snowden would likely be barred from uttering a single word, Ellsberg wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian on Friday, and could well be sent to jail for the rest of his life.
“Without reform to the Espionage Act that lets a court hear a public interest defense ... Snowden and future Snowdens can and will only be able to ‘make their case’ from outside the United States,” he wrote.
Multiple legal experts seemed skeptical that the U.S. would condemn Snowden to a “kangaroo court” without a chance to tell his side of the story.
It would be “incredibly difficult” to prevent his testimony from getting out, University of Southern California law professor Edwin Smith said, especially given the public image that Snowden has built up.
Snowden has said that more than his own liberty is at stake.
“I’m [not] going to give myself a parade,” he said in the interview this week, “but neither am I going to walk into a jail cell to serve as a bad example for other people in government who see something happening, some violation of the Constitution, and think they need to say something about it.”