Eric Holder: If Edward Snowden were open to plea, we’d talk
By: Josh Gerstein
January 23, 2014 04:32 PM EST
Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that prosecutors would hold talks with National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden if he were willing to plead guilty to criminal charges.
“If Mr. Snowden wanted to come back to the United States and enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers. We’d do that with any defendant who wanted to enter a plea of guilty,” Holder said during an appearance at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
While the attorney general suggested a plea deal was a possibility, he dismissed calls for a pardon that would absolve Snowden of legal responsibility for disclosing classified information he obtained while working in Hawaii as a contractor for the NSA. In recent weeks, editorials in the New York Times and Britain’s Guardian newspaper urged some form of amnesty for Snowden because of the debate over surveillance triggered by his revelations.
“We’ve always indicated… that the notion of clemency was not something we were willing to consider,” Holder said at UVA. “Were he to come back to the United States and enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers.”
A federal criminal complaint filed in June charges Snowden with three felonies: unauthorized disclosure of national defense information, unauthorized disclosure of communications intelligence information and theft of government property.
Holder’s comments at UVA came following similar remarks he made in an MSNBC interview earlier Thursday, expressing an openness to plea talks with Snowden.
In an online chat Thursday, Snowden suggested a desire to come home, but said he views that as a non-starter at the moment because he believes he cannot get a fair trial. He did not address the possibility of a plea bargain.
”Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself,” Snowden said.
“The hundred-year old law under which I’ve been charged, which was never intended to be used against people working in the public interest, and forbids a public interest defense. This is especially frustrating, because it means there’s no chance to have a fair trial, and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury,” he added.
It was unclear from Holder’s remarks whether he was open to engaging in plea negotiations with Snowden even while the former contractor remains in Russia, beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.
“Of course if Mr. Snowden’s lawyers informed us their client was prepared to take accountability by pleading guilty to the charges filed against him, we would engage with his lawyers on that, as we would with any other defendant,” said a Justice Department spokesman who asked not to be named.
Earlier this month, FBI Director James Comey said he opposed holding talks with fugitives about any issue other than their surrender.
“I think the Department of Justice’s policy is, and at least used to be when I was last in the business, and it’s one I agree with — that we don’t negotiate with fugitives, except to arrange their surrender,” Comey said during a roundtable with journalists. “I’ve been involved personally in cases where fugitives wanted to plea bargain from afar outside the jurisdiction or argue the case ought to be dropped, and my response always was: No way. Come back here. Subject yourself to the jurisdiction of the court, and we’ll listen in good faith to any arguments you have.”
However, in at least one high-profile case, Holder has said he would hold discussions with a defendant’s lawyers even when that defendant has chosen to remain outside U.S. territory.
Holder said in 2001 that he would have engaged in talks with financier Marc Rich’s lawyers about a potential resolution to criminal charges against him. “In my view, the government — and the cause of justice — often gains from hearing about the flaws, real or imagined, cited by defense counsel in a criminal case,” Holder told a House committee.
However, as deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton, Holder did not force the then-U.S. Attorney in New York to hold such discussions with Rich’s lawyers. They ultimately turned to the White House, obtaining a controversial pardon from Clinton the night before he left office.