The second most powerful Republican in the Senate said Wednesday that reports of a potential plea deal to bring Edward Snowden home are "insulting and inappropriate," and that the fugitive leaker should serve no less than a dozen years in a jail cell for his unauthorized disclosures.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing convened to discuss law-enforcement access to encrypted data, Majority Whip John Cornyn asked Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates whether she was aware of any negotiations ongoing between the Justice Department and Snowden, who has lived under asylum in Russia since exposing secrets about the National Security Agency's surveillance operations two years ago.
"The idea as suggested in this article that he would be subjected to only three to five years in prison strikes me as insulting and inappropriate," Cornyn said, referring to a Yahoo News articlepublished on Monday, which quoted former Attorney General Eric Holder saying the "possibility exists" that a deal could be cut to bring Snowden home.
Yates said she had not read the article, but said it was "the position of the Department of Justice that Mr. Snowden needs to return to the United States and face justice." Yates did not rule out that a deal could be possible, however.
The Yahoo story quoted three anonymous officials saying a three-to-five year sentence had been privately floated by Robert Litt, who serves as chief counsel to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Cornyn, a former judge, said that his understanding of the charges against Snowden led him to believe the former NSA contractor should face at least 12 to 20 years in federal prison, under guidelines set by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
"I just want to make sure that the person that was most responsible for classified intelligence leaks and endangering our intelligence community and undermining our relationship with our allies wasn't going to get off with a slap of the wrist," Cornyn later told reporters when asked about his inquiry.
Shortly after Snowden's leaks began in June 2013, the Justice Department charged him in a federal criminal complaint with unauthorized disclosure of national defense information, unauthorized disclosure of communications intelligence information, and theft of government property.
Snowden's lawyers, however, have said their client should not serve any jail time for following an act of conscience that ignited a vigorous international debate about the proper scope of government surveillance.
When asked if he would be open to the possibility of any deal at all, Cornyn replied: "I think he's a traitor."
Other than offering political scrutiny, it appears there is little lawmakers could do to impede a deal between the Justice Department and Snowden. Most presidential candidates in both parties, however, have indicated they would be unwilling to offer Snowden clemency.
The Obama administration has been criticized by civil libertarians for aggressively cracking down on government leakers, having charged more people under the Espionage Act than all previous presidencies combined.