In a subtle yet remarkable shift in tone, former Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday that the "possibility exists" that the Justice Department could forge a deal with fugitive leaker Edward Snowden that could bring him home.
Speaking to Yahoo News, Holder said "we are in a different place as a result of the Snowden disclosures," adding that Snowden's revelations about the size and scope of the National Security Agency's sweeping surveillance programs "spurred a necessary debate.
"I certainly think there could be a basis for a resolution that everybody could ultimately be satisfied with. I think the possibility exists," Holder said.
Holder, who just returned to the private sector as a lawyer for the firm Covington & Burling after spending six years at the helm of President Obama's Justice Department, has suggested before that a deal could take place that would allow Snowden to return to the U.S. from Moscow, where he is living under asylum. But Holder's previous comments, in January 2014, made clear that "the notion of clemency was not something we were willing to consider."
If Holder's comments Monday signal any pivot in the Obama administration's approach to Snowden, the Justice Department is so far not publicly indicating it.
"This is an ongoing case so I am not going to get into specific details but I can say our position regarding bringing Edward Snowden back to the United States to face charges has not changed," Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement to National Journal.
Still, Holder's new comments appear to be more conciliatory and sympathetic to Snowden than any given by such a high-ranking government official—current or former—since the disclosures began two years ago. In the interview, however, Holder—who was often criticized during his tenure for aggressively cracking down on government leakers—did not clarify what a potential deal might look like.
In the Yahoo story, investigative journalist Michael Isikoff, citing three unnamed sources familiar with Snowden's case, reported that Robert Litt, the chief counsel to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, has "recently privately floated the idea that the government might be open to a plea bargain in which Snowden returns to the United States, pleads guilty to one felony count and receives a prison sentence of three to five years in exchange for full cooperation with the government."
A lawyer for Snowden, however, told Yahoo News that a plea deal that included any prison time would be off the table.
President Obama himself has not shut the door entirely to some form of clemency being offered to Snowden. In a January 2014 interview with The New Yorker's David Remnick, Obama said he did not "have a yes/no answer on clemency for Edward Snowden." He added that it was an "active case," but tempered any chance of leniency by arguing that "the benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done, because there was another way of doing it."
Snowden has repeatedly said he will not return to the U.S. under current espionage law, which he believes would not grant him a fair trial. The former NSA contractor has been living in Moscow for the past two years after igniting an international debate about the proper balance between government surveillance and privacy in the post-9/11 world.
Many lawmakers in Congress would immediately denounce any potential bargain for Snowden. Several hawkish members have accused him of being a traitor and fleeing the U.S. with the goal of aiding Russian President Vladimir Putin. Snowden and his allies, however, have said he did not bring any of the documents he downloaded to Russia and that he had intended to seek safe haven in Latin America before the U.S. revoked his passport, effectively leaving him marooned in a Moscow airport.
Even those who have come to support changes in bulk data collection have said that they think Snowden breached protocol when he decided to hand over a massive trove of top-secret documents to journalists. The most ardent supporters of reining in government, such as Sen. Ron Wyden, have refused to give Snowden credit for legislation passed last month that will effectively end the NSA's dragnet collection of U.S. call data—the first program exposed by Snowden in June 2013.
Of the many politicians vying for president, only Democratic candidate Lincoln Chafee, the former governor of Rhode Island, has explicitly said it is time to allow Snowden to return to the U.S. Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who has made his opposition to NSA surveillance a key plank of his White House platform, has said Snowden deserves a "reasonable sentence" and has quipped that he would put Snowden and Clapper "in the same jail cell."
Snowden was charged in a federal criminal complaint with unauthorized disclosure of national defense information, unauthorized disclosure of communications intelligence information, and theft of government property.