Snowden Amnesty Idea Kicked Around
Although the possibility of the U.S. government granting amnesty to Edward Snowden appears to be remote, there apparently has been some serious discussion of it among officials concerned about locking down sensitive information still in his possession. The subject came up in a 60 Minutes interview widely criticized for being a one-sided defense of the NSA's surveillance activities.
12/17/13 9:08 AM PT
NSA official Rick Ledgett, who has been with the agency for 25 years, suggested offering whistleblower Edward Snowden amnesty, but agency head Gen. Keith Alexander squashed the idea, CBS reported.
Ledgett, who runs the NSA task force assessing the damage caused by Snowden's leaks of classified data, said about 31,000 of the possibly 1.7 million documents Snowden stole from the agency contain information that could be helpful to enemies of the United States.
It would be worth discussing the possibility of granting Snowden amnesty if he could provide assurances that the rest of the data he has could be secured, but the bar would be set "very high," Ledgett reportedly said.
Document Theft Deterrence
Gen. Alexander ruled out the possibility because it could encourage a repetition of Snowden's act.
On the one hand, granting Snowden amnesty would require the U.S. to "set an extremely high bar and have multiple assurances that there was no other copy floating around in some box or hidden drive somewhere in the world to be released," Larry Spiwak, president of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies, told TechNewsWorld. "That's a very high bar, and that's a problem."
On the other hand, the U.S. could take "the proverbial 'we don't negotiate with terrorists' stand," Spiwak said. "We grant Snowden this deal, what happens when the next person steals documents and thinks he can get away with it too?"
The White House has ruled out the possibility of amnesty, according to USA Today.
Ledgett reportedly raised the possibility of granting Snowden amnesty in the hope of getting back the cache of documents the whistleblower has -- particularly the 31,000 highly sensitive ones.
These apparently constitute an exhaustive list of the NSA's requirements. They document what topics the agency is interested in and the gaps in its knowledge. They include information about U.S. capabilities and U.S. gaps -- although it is not clear exactly what Ledgett meant by the last.
The documents would give enemies of the U.S. a road map of what the government knows and what it doesn't know, and implicitly provide them with a way to protect their information from U.S. surveillance.
Keeping America Safe
Gen. Alexander claimed the NSA used data it gathered to foil one attempt at attacking the U.S. financial system that he called the "BIOS plot."
An unnamed nation state had the intention to develop and deliver an attack against the basic input output system (BIOS) of computers disguised as a request for a software update, said Debora Plunkett, who directs cyberdefense for the NSA.
The attack could brick infected computers, potentially taking down the entire U.S. economy, she suggested.
However, security experts laughed off Plunkett's claims.
For one thing, although she described a BIOS for motherboards, she was holding a serial ATA controller BIOS.
Further, the alleged plot cannot be verified; BIOS-targeting attacks are nothing new and not much of a threat; and nothing Plunkett said indicated the so-called plot would be anything more than script kiddies trying to come up with avenues for future attacks.
The Final Solution?
Snowden previously has claimed that the U.S. would seek to eliminate him, and his statements were given fresh strength by comments made during a panel discussion on cybersecurity in October.
Panelist Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and the CIA, joked about putting Snowden on a kill list, The Hill reported. Fellow panelist Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, reportedly quipped he could help with that.
From the standpoint of public policy, not granting amnesty would be the better course, argued Raymond Van Dyke, principal at Van Dyke Law.
"I would hope intelligent people are trying to determine what Snowden has and where he has it, and interdicting it," Van Dyke told TechNewsWorld. "Snowden might be a clever guy, but he's not that clever."