Regardless of whether Americans consider Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor, anyone concerned with the national security of the United States should want one thing: to get him back.
How to get him back is fraught with unsavory compromises and unfortunate consequences, but he is more valuable to the United States in the United States than he is running around elsewhere. America needs him back both to stop the leaking of secrets and to understand fully the potential damage caused by his NSA revelations.
This administration and Congress should want to get Mr. Snowden back any legal way they can.
Those who see him as a traitor need to recognize that his knowledge, secret computer systems insight, and digitized database of downloaded documents are valuable for different reasons to different players.
The Chinese and Russians have their own interests in him; Americans should not be so naïve as to pretend that they consider all his resources spent. They are, in fact, valuable enough to keep from other nations on the basis of national security.
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For those who see his acts as heroic and his role as a whistleblower, what better way to name names and force the debate on domestic surveillance than to have Snowden testifying before Congress or appearing before a judge?
A select committee like the one Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) led nearly 30 years ago would be able to bring out detailed information on questionable constitutional matters and maintain the ability to conceal sensitive issues that concern foreign states.
It may not be a full amnesty or presidential pardon that gets him back, but there are various political, economic and diplomatic tools available – either to convince other nations into sending him home or to entice him back home of his own free will. Snowden considers himself a patriot and the New York Times-advocated clemency would test the strength and validity of that patriotism.
Russians and most of our allies will not extradite him to the United States because of the death penalty. Taking the death penalty off the table exposes the hollowness of that argument, and Attorney General Eric Holder has already promised in writing that the U.S. government would not pursue the death penalty in Snowden’s case.
The strong distaste for anyone wanting to negotiate his return is that it requires intense compromise and the expenditure of significant political capital. But nations compromise all the time to get a desired outcome.
In Afghanistan, diplomats are willing to talk to the Taliban in order to get a more peaceful resolution to the war; the United States is willing to talk to the Iranians, with whom it has no diplomatic relations, in order to secure nuclear weapons; there is willingness to give Assad a pass in Syria in order to get him to hand over his cache of chemical weapons.
This country’s political leadership – regardless of party – is always forced to make unsavory bargains in order to achieve a larger and often more important goal.
Of course, there might be a political price to pay, but in doing the reckoning, Americans would come out in the black by bringing Snowden in from the cold.
Here’s the rub: Nobody wants to take responsibility for doing this. But there is a solution. In diplomacy it is common to use back channel methods before having direct negotiations. International arbitration methods allow negotiating parties to keep their hands clean, but ultimately requires all parties to give up something in the process.
What is the United States willing to give up in order to get Snowden back?
Markos Kounalakis is a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution.