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Edward Snowden says he'd accept jail in US. Coming home?

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Andrew Kelly/Reuters

(Read caption) American whistle-blower Edward Snowden is seen on monitors as he delivers remarks via video link from Moscow to attendees at a discussion regarding an International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers in New York on Sept. 24.

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Edward Snowden in an interview broadcast Monday reiterated that he’s willing to go to jail if US authorities allow him to return to his native country.

The former National Security Agency contractor told the BBC that he has “volunteered to go to prison with the government many times” but to this point has not received any official answer.

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“So far, they’ve said they won’t torture me, which is a start, I think,” said the whistle-blower, who now resides in Russia. “But we haven’t gotten much farther than that.”

Mr. Snowden said he and his lawyers are waiting for the US to call them back.

Is it possible that Snowden and the Justice Department could strike some sort of plea deal? After all, his return could be a good thing for the government and even US intelligence, in some ways.

For one thing, a plea deal would presumably stop Snowden’s leaks. Right now he continues to make public bits of classified information from his Russian outpost. As far as the NSA is concerned, he’s still an embarrassment and a security risk.

For another, NSA experts might get a chance to debrief him and find out how much he really has, and who he gave it to. That could help them understand the fuller implications of Snowden’s moves on US national security.

Finally, a managed Snowden return might be popular. Snowden’s revelations about the extent of NSA activities have fueled worldwide discussion about the nature of privacy versus safety in the digital age, and he’s become a hero to many. A recent Pew poll shows that 52 percent of Americans are at least somewhat concerned about government surveillance of their data and electronic communications.

One sign of his standing with the public: A petition to pardon Snowden at the online White House petition site has received more than 167,000 electronic signatures in two years.

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But this does not mean there’s a national consensus on the nature of Snowden’s actions. About 46 percent of respondents to that Pew survey said they were not very concerned about US electronic snooping.

Many in the US intelligence community remain adamant that he’s a traitor who should be tried in a court of law. That remains the official White House position. Responding to the petition for clemency, Lisa Monaco, the president’s adviser on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said that Snowden “should come home to the United States, and be judged by a jury of his peers – not hide behind the cover of an authoritarian regime. Right now, he’s running away from the consequences of his actions."

Nor has Snowden detailed exactly what sort of prison term he’s willing to accept. A few months? Years? Currently, he faces charges under the Espionage Act which could send him to jail for three decades. It’s hard to envision him returning to endure that kind of sentence.

What does he want? That’s the first thing Brookings Institution national security legal exert Benjamin Wittes asked Snowden after the whistle-blower joined Twitter last week.

“What would it take in terms of an understanding with [the Justice Department] for @Snowden to return to the United States?” Mr. Wittes tweeted at Snowden.

Snowden’s public statement that he’s willing to go to jail might be an effort to restart discussions that died out in 2013, some months after he fled the US. It’s possible he thinks it could be a propitious time to reach out. After all, in March former Army general and Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus avoided jail by pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor in a classified leaks case. Mr. Petraeus admitted that he had provided a lover with notebooks of secrets, and then lied about it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The fact is, however, that Snowden’s infractions were of a different scale than those of Petraeus, and were made in public. He published reams of US secrets for all to see. The Obama administration has been tough on other leakers and there is no reason to believe the current president will make an exception for Snowden.

“The realistic scenario is that he’s going to be in exile in Russia for a long time to come,” wrote The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill, who worked with Snowden on his initial 2013 information leaks, in March.