When former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents to journalists in 2013, the Department of Justice labeled him a spy, charged him with espionage, and insisted he could only return to the US by pleading guilty to felony charges. On Wednesday, however, former Attorney General Eric Holder hinted that some sort of deal could be struck between the DOJ and Snowden, who now lives in Moscow.
"I certainly think there could be a basis for a resolution that everybody could ultimately be satisfied with," Holder told Yahoo News.
For the first time, Holder also acknowledged the Snowden's leaks served the public good. "We are in a different place as a result of the Snowden disclosures," he said, adding that "his actions spurred a necessary debate."
"I think these remarks are welcome," Snowden's attorney Ben Wizner told VICE News, stressing that in any deal, his client would not accept a felony charge. "Snowden does not think a guilty plea to a felony and a loss of his rights are the appropriate consequences — especially since we now know that the law has changed as a result."
On June 1, President Barack Obama signed the "Freedom Act," which significantly rolled back the NSA's bulk data collection program, one of the secret initiatives revealed by Snowden. The ACLU called the bill "the most important surveillance reform bill since 1978," and noted that it was "a testament to the significance of the Snowden disclosures."
The DOJ, meanwhile, insisted that Holder was not announcing a shift in policy. "Our position regarding bringing Edward Snowden back to the United States to face charges has not changed," DOJ spokesperson Marc Raimondi told VICE News. The DOJ would not supply further details on what it called "an ongoing case."
Jesselyn Radack, a former FBI whistleblower who now represents officials charged under the Espionage Act, says that Holder's remarks are ironic. "It's so nice of Holder to say this after he left the DOJ where he presided on the most draconian crackdown on whistleblowers in history," she told VICE News.
In addition to Snowden, Holder also pursued espionage charges against at least a dozen other officials who leaked classified information.
Holder said last year he would be willing to engage in discussions with Snowden to negotiate a return to the US, but made clear that clemency was not an option.
While the remarks Wednesday sounded a softer note, Wizner still isn't sure a deal is on the horizon. "We will see if reflects a broader change in the administration's approach," Snowden's attorney said. "We'll be interested to see how motivated [the DOJ] are to resolve this before the end of administration."
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro
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