Edward Snowden said he wants to return to the United States — even if that means serving jail time.
The former government contractor fled the U.S. in 2013 after he leaked classified NSA documents to reporters. Snowden said in an interview with the BBC that aired Monday that Department of Justice officials had not responded to his offer.
“I’ve volunteered to go to prison with the government many times,” Snowden said. “What I won’t do is I won’t serve as a deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations.”
The U.S. charged Snowden with three felonies under the Espionage Act in 2013 that carry a jail sentence of up to three decades. Snowden told Wired Magazine in 2014 that he would volunteer for prison as long as his sentence “serves the right purpose.”
In the two years since Snowden’s revelations, his name has catalyzed politicized debates over whether he is a patriot or a traitor. Many in the patriot camp have been calling on President Obama to grant Snowden a full pardon. National security hawks often argue only a traitor would hide from the U.S. government in Russia. But in light of Snowden’s recent comments, these criticisms miss the mark.
Secretary of State John Kerry called Snowden “a traitor” and “a coward” when he first arrived in Moscow in 2013. Since then the criticism has not let up. This summer many of the presidential candidates weighed in on Snowden’s stay in Russia. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called him “garbage” and said he wouldn’t waste a Navy Seal Team’s efforts to extradite him from Russia. And just last week former New York Governor George Pataki called for Twitter to ban Snowden because he was a traitor who fled to China and Russia.
Snowden and his lawyers have objected to his returning to the U.S. because they argue his charges under the Espionage Act would not lead to a fair trial.
“The Espionage Act finds anyone guilty who provides any information to the public, regardless of whether it is right or wrong,” Snowden told the BBC. “You aren’t even allowed to explain to a jury what your motivations were for revealing this information. It is simply a question of, ‘Did you reveal information?’ If yes, you go to prison for the rest of your life.”
Former Attorney General Eric Holder has signaled a plea deal that meets both the government’s and Snowden’s interests could be possible.
Snowden’s comments come as he is increasingly using his status as a public figure to speak about surveillance issues. He now serves as director at Freedom of the Press, and appears at conferences and popular late night talk shows, like “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
For now, let’s be grateful the government isn’t offering him a reasonable plea deal. Snowden can do far more to advance surveillance reform efforts behind his new Twitter account than he could behind bars.