Best line here: “The former contractor is viewed by supporters, many of them anti-American leftists and anarchists, as a whistleblower…”

Discussions on Snowden’s return were held in the past several weeks between prosecutors in the Justice Department’s National Security Division and Plato Cacheris, a long-time Washington defense lawyer who in the past represented several U.S. spies, including some who reached plea bargains rather than go to trial…

No details of the discussions could be learned. But the talks focused on a plea deal that would result in Snowden returning to the United States to face lesser charges in exchange for returning the large cache of secret documents, said officials familiar with some aspects of the talks…

Snowden indicated he is prepared to talk to the U.S. government. Asked when he decided to flee with the documents, Snowden told NBC: “I think given the ongoing investigation, that’s something better not to get into in a news interview, but I’d be happy to discuss these things with the [U.S.] government.”

Two things about this. One: Imagine how much life in Russia must reek for this guy to want to come home to certain jail time and deep hostility from something like one-third to one-half of the population. Two: The fact that plea negotiations are happening isn’t the newsy part. That’s been widely assumed since last summer, when Snowden first hired Cacheris to talk to the DOJ for him. (ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner, a member of Snowden’s legal team, said flatly at the time that he was interested in coming home.) Just a few months ago, Eric Holder himself said that he’d be happy to consider some sort of deal after Snowden has returned with the intent to plead guilty to some charges. No dice, said Wizner. The terms of a plea bargain need to be hashed out before he gets on a plane in Moscow. After all, what kind of fugitive surrenders to authorities before they’ve agreed to the terms of his captivity? That may be the point the two sides are stuck on. And it’s almost certainly the DOJ that’ll have to cave, as Snowden’s long said that the reason he didn’t follow whistleblower protocol in the first place is because he doesn’t trust the feds to treat him fairly. If he gives himself up without a deal in place, they could turn around and demand hard time.

But as I say, that’s not the newsy part. The newsy part is the condition — lesser charges if he hands over the documents he has. If you believe Snowden, though, and maybe you shouldn’t, those documents are long gone. Watch the clip below. He told NBC that he didn’t bring a single page with him to Russia for fear that the FSB would bribe or beat it out of him. So where are the documents now? Quote: “The solution that I came up with was to destroy it. To take it out of my hands and entrust it fully to the institutions of the press.” He destroyed them — by entrusting them to the press? Huh? Maybe he means he destroyed the most sensitive ones and handed the rest, which have civil liberties implications for U.S. citizens, to Greenwald, Bart Gellman, et al. Either way, that doesn’t solve the DOJ’s problem of trying to negotiate with him over something he claims he no longer has. In fact, how could they ever trust Snowden to be honest with them about which documents he still possesses? There have been rumors since the beginning that Snowden built a de facto intelligence “doomsday machine” by uploading the stolen cache to a server somewhere online, encrypting it, and then sending the password to a few trusted confidantes to be used in case he suddenly disappears. A guy smart enough to abscond with the crown jewels of intelligence is probably smart enough to retain some control over what he took, even after he allegedly shed himself of all the evidence. How do you deal with that if you’re a federal negotiator?

Exit question one: For Obama, this is a little bit like the Bergdahl swap, no? Politically, it’s no-win. If he doesn’t make a deal with Snowden, he’s gambling that this loose cannon will keep his word and not reveal the most dangerous things he knows. If he does make a deal, he’s encouraging future Snowdens to steal as much as they can for leverage in plea negotiations. Exit question two: What if the DOJ offers him a light sentence in exchange for Snowden convincing Greenwald, Gellman, and other reporters to whom he’s given documents not to publish anything further? A truly independent journalist would say no dice; the truth about NSA surveillance is more important than Snowden’s comfort, a point Snowden himself has made repeatedly. It’s going to be weird, though, if leaks are still being published in the Guardian and WaPo long after Snowden’s made nice with the feds.