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NSA official: Snowden amnesty 'worth having a conversation about'

By Kevin Liptak, CNN
updated 1:06 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Official who's assessing damage says he's willing to talk if it cuts off flow of secrets
  • Reports say one NSA reform recommendation is changing leadership from military to civilian
  • Another reported proposal is giving control over cell phone records to a third party
  • A review board's recommendations won't be made public until next month

Washington (CNN) -- The top NSA official tasked with assessing the damage from Edward Snowden's leaks says he would consider amnesty for the former contractor in exchange for a halt to the flow of top secret information about U.S. spying.

Snowden, currently in Moscow evading a U.S. warrant for his arrest on espionage charges, leaked information on widespread data collection that's spurred outcry and forced President Barack Obama to review the spy agency's powers.

"My personal view is, yes, it's worth having a conversation about. I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured, and my bar for those assurances would be very high. It would be more than just an assertion on his part," Rick Ledgett said on "60 Minutes" on Sunday. He said the agency's assessment of Snowden's leaks has cost millions of dollars.

Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA's director, said on the same program that he didn't support allowing Snowden to go unpunished, and the White House said Monday it hadn't changed its stance.

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"Mr. Snowden is charged with a felony, and he should return home to face those charges, where he will be afforded all due process," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

On Friday, a review panel of outside officials delivered dozens of recommendations to Obama on ways the U.S. can balance necessary intelligence gathering with expectations of privacy among both Americans and foreign governments. Convened amid a series of leaks from Snowden, the review board operated in private, and its recommendations won't be made public until next month.

"We expect our overall internal review to be completed in January and the President thereafter to deliver remarks to outline the outcomes of our work," Hayden said Friday.

The review came as newspapers published story after story detailing the spying powers of the NSA and other federal agencies, including reports that the U.S. government tracked the cell phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders. The revelations prompted outcry from Americans and foreign governments, concerned the U.S. was overreaching in its efforts to thwart terrorist attacks.

Reports published in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times last week indicated the recommendations from the review group included transferring the command of the NSA from military to civilian leadership and handing over control of cell phone records to a third party.

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Some opponents of the NSA programs have called for the agency's spying and military cybercommand to be split into two; however, on Friday the White House said the dual NSA missions would remain under one chief to avoid duplicated work and foster cooperation.

Michael Hayden, a former NSA director, said on Sunday the agency's boss doesn't necessarily have to be a military commander.

"My view would be take the best American out there and put them in the job, don't make it a requirement that they'd be in (or) out of uniform," he said.

Obama has come under pressure from his liberal base to find ways of curbing the federal government's spying powers, including demands from lawmakers that more oversight be enacted to prevent abuses during the secretive legal process allowing spying to take place.

"Nothing short of stopping the mass, suspicionless surveillance of Americans is acceptable," Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said last week, as reports of the review panel's recommendation leaked. "We look forward to evaluating the report's details and whether the reported 'stricter rules' for obtaining U.S. records are a meaningful and substantive improvement. In the end, however, Congress must pass legislation to end bulk collection of Americans' sensitive call records. Requiring third parties to store Americans' records for the government is not a solution."

Obama vowed at the beginning of December to find ways of reforming the NSA, though in making the pledge he also defended the agency's work.

"I'll be proposing some self-restraint on the NSA, and you know, to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence," he told MSNBC on December 5. "But I want everybody to be clear: The people of the NSA generally are looking out for the safety of the American people."

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CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta contributed to this report

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