Eric Posner on the Case for a Plea Bargain with Edward Snowden

Let’s Make a Deal With Snowden

President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder both signaled last weekthat they may offer Edward Snowden a plea bargain. This may surprise you—hasn’t the U.S. government accused Snowden of seriously harming national security, and isn’t it clear that he violated the law by disclosing classified information about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs? The answers are yes and yes—but nonetheless the government has good reason to settle with Snowden.

The reason has little to do with the debate about whether Snowden benefited democracy more than he injured national security. The primary reason for a plea bargain is that Snowden possesses but has not yet disclosed classified information whose release the government thinks would help America’s enemies. One top NSA official believes that Snowden holds the “keys to the kingdom” in his cache of thousands of documents, and wants them back. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has published many of Snowden’s revelations, says that “Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had.” If Snowden will commit to keep this information secret, the government would do well to make a deal.

True, as Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of NSA, worries, if Snowden is not punished, then others like him will not be deterred. “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,’ ” he says. But sometimes capitulation to the hostage-taker is the right thing to do. A deal could still send Snowden to prison for some time, rather than no time. And that may be sufficient to deter others from acting like him.