DOJ: No change in stance on Snowden despite Holder remarks

Updated 2:36 PM EDT, Tue July 7, 2015
02:59 - Source: CNN
DOJ: No change in stance on Snowden

Story highlights

Holder generated headlines when he told Yahoo News that the "possibility exists" for the DOJ to cut a deal that would allow Snowden to return to the United States

Holder also said Snowden's disclosures "spurred a necessary debate" about the program to collect in bulk phone records on tens of millions of Americans

(CNN) —  

The Justice Department continues to insist that Edward Snowden would face criminal prosecution were he to return to the U.S., even as former Attorney General Eric Holder said the former National Security Agency contractor “spurred a necessary debate” over government spying techniques, Obama administration officials said Tuesday.

On Monday, Holder generated headlines when he told Yahoo News that the “possibility exists” for the DOJ to cut a deal that would allow Snowden to return to the United States, although U.S. authorities have long said they would be open to a plea deal with him.

Holder also said Snowden’s disclosures “spurred a necessary debate” about the program to collect in bulk phone records on tens of millions of Americans, which was curtailed last month when Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. government to obtain a warrant in order to get phone metadata from telecommunications companies.

Snowden remains in exile in Moscow. Last year, Holder said at an event at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center that “clemency isn’t something that we (are) willing to consider” in the case. In March, Anatoly Kucherena, an attorney for Snowden, said the former contractor had received a guarantee from Holder that he will not face the death penalty, and added that Snowden also wanted a guarantee of a “legal and impartial trial.”

Holder said Monday that “I certainly think there could be a basis for a resolution that everybody could ultimately be satisfied with.”

The article also reports that a possible plea deal being floated by a top intelligence official, Office of the Director of National Intelligence chief counsel Robert Litt, would allow Snowden to return and plead guilty to just one felony count, serve a three-to-five year prison sentence and cooperate with the government.

But a top intelligence official told CNN on Tuesday that Litt has no part in the Justice Department’s prosecution of the case and is not party to any talks between the government and Snowden. Litt did raise the three-to-five year idea in a private discussion, said the intelligence official, who added that it was Litt’s personal view of what could be a possible deal, not a reflection of an actual discussion.

Melanie Newman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said Tuesday that Snowden is still expected to face charges if he ever returns to the United States.

“This is an ongoing case so I am not going to get into specific details,” she said, “but I can say our position regarding bringing Edward Snowden back to the United States to face charges has not changed.”

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Tuesday that the administration’s position also “hasn’t changed.”

Holder’s comments met with criticism from former Florida governor and 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who said in a tweet that Snowden “broke the law, recklessly endangered national security and fled to China/Russia. He should be given no leniency.”

Bush, whose brother, George W. Bush, was President when many of the NSA’s most controversial techniques were implemented, has been a staunch supporter of the spying capabilities. In April, he even called the program the “best part” of the Obama administration.

But Ben Wizer, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Snowden, said Holder’s comments were “significant.”

“The former attorney general’s recognition that Snowden’s actions led to meaningful changes is welcome,” Wizer said in a statement to CNN. “This is significant. I don’t think we’ve seen this kind of respect from anybody at a Cabinet level before.”

Holder, who left office in April after serving as the nation’s top law enforcement officer since the beginning of the Obama administration, is now a partner at the law firm of Covington and Burling, LLP, where he had worked before leading the Justice Department.