WASHINGTON – US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden could be granted amnesty to return to the US if he agrees to stop leaking secret documents, a senior NSA official has hinted.
Richard Ledgett, the NSA official who is in charge of assessing the damage of the former NSA contractor’s leaks, told CBS News that an amnesty, in his “personal view” is “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,” he said in an interview with ’60 Minutes’ aired Sunday.
However NSA’s director, General Keith Alexander, told the same programme that, in his view, an amnesty would be a green light to potential whistleblowers.
“I think people have to be held accountable for their actions. Because what we don’t want is the next person to do the same thing, race off to Hong Kong and to Moscow with another set of data, knowing they can strike the same deal,” he said.
“This is analogous to a hostage taker taking 50 people hostage, shooting 10 and then say ‘You give me full amnesty and I’ll let the other 40 go’,” Alexander added.
Snowden has revealed in previous interviews that the intelligence documents he leaked are no longer in his possession but in the hands of his trusted journalist partners Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and that he did not take any intelligence material with him when he flew from Hong Kong to Russia.
Snowden, who has been granted asylum by Russia for 12 months, faces criminal charges in the US of theft of government property and “wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorised person”.
Each of the charges carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
US intelligence officials assert Snowden stole more than 1.5 million classified documents detailing specific NSA programmes and operations, only a portion of which have been made public.
Ledgett said of particular concern was Snowden’s theft of around 31,000 documents, which the NSA official described as an “exhaustive list of the requirements that have been levied against the National Security Agency.”
“What that gives is, what topics we’re interested in, where our gaps are,” said Ledgett. “Additional information about US capabilities and US gaps is provided as part of that.”
The information could potentially offer a rival nation a “roadmap of what we know, what we don’t know, and give them — implicitly — a way to protect their information from the US intelligence community’s view,” the NSA official added. “It is the keys to the kingdom.”
Snowden has been charged with espionage by US authorities for divulging reams of secret files.
The former NSA contractor has insisted he spilled secrets to spark public debate and expose the NSA’s far-reaching surveillance.
At the weekend, the NSA allowed a CBS television crew into their headquarters for the first time in its history, in an effort to be more open about what the agency does with the data it collects.
“NSA can only target the communications of a US person with a probable cause finding under specific court order,” he said, referring to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
“Today, we have less than 60 authorizations on specific persons to do that.”
On Sunday, the State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Ledgett was stating a “personal view”.
“Our position has not changed,” Harf said. “Mr Snowden is facing very serious charges and should return to the United States to face them.”
Alexander’s predecessor at the NSA, retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, also rejected an amnesty for Snowden.
“I wouldn’t do it. That simply motivates future Snowdens,” said Hayden, who began the bulk collection of Americans’ phone and internet metadata in 2001 as a response to 9/11 that was initially unknown and unauthorised by Congress and the courts.
But Hayden also said that Snowden had kick-started an important debate in the US about the appropriate balance between liberty and security.
“Snowden was important. He accelerated a debate, he misshaped the debate, but “the debate was coming,” Hayden said, on NBC.
Snowden told the New York Times in October that he divested himself of the documents before leaving Hong Kong for Russia, which he suggested was a preventive measure to keep the documents out of the hands of Russian intelligence.
Lack of access to the documents, which are now in the hands of journalists, would likely complicate the “assurances” Ledgett indicated the government would require for any amnesty.