NYT: Snowden hired Washington defense attorney last summer

Not just any defense attorney either, but one of the most high-profile defenders of those charged under the Espionage Act. Edward Snowden spent his summer on the run, fleeing to Hong Kong and then to Russia, but he also spent some serious cash on Plato Cacheris, hoping to arrange a deal for his return. Nearly a year later, that hasn’t panned out, the New York Times reports:

Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who provided journalists a trove of classified documents, retained a well-known Washington defense lawyer last summer in hopes of reaching a plea deal with federal prosecutors that would allow him to return to the United States and spare him significant prison time.

The lawyer, according to people familiar with the investigation, is Plato Cacheris, who has represented defendants in some of the highest-profile cases involving Espionage Act charges, including the convicted spies Aldrich Ames andRobert Hanssen and the convicted leaker Lawrence Franklin.

But nearly a year after Mr. Cacheris became involved, no agreement appears imminent, and government officials said the negotiations remained at an early stage.

The officials and others who discussed the case and Mr. Cacheris’s involvement in it spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the talks.

Doug Mataconis says that both sides could gain from a deal:

For Snowden, of course, there’s the obvious advantage of ending nearly a year of living as an international fugitive, most of which has been spent in Russia, where things can’t be entirely pleasant at this point. For the government, there’s the potential advantage of being able to determine exactly what Snowden absconded with, and how he did it. Perhaps even more importantly, avoiding a trial in the Snowden matter would alleviate the potential that prosecutors would have to make a choice between aggressively prosecuting their case and potentially revealing national security secrets.

Yes, but the benefits for prosecutors and the government decline over time and with continued exposure from Snowden’s cache. Of course, there may be more that they’d like to keep quiet, but how can prosecutors know that Snowden hasn’t shared it with others already? They could cut a deal and still have it leak out. Presumably Snowden was smart enough to structure the data so that he could make a deal eventually, but the government may never be able to verify that they’ve plugged the leak. In that case, they may be better off using Snowden as a cautionary tale as to what happens to those who abscond with national-security secrets, in terms of deterrence anyway.

This does put a little different twist on the narrative, although hardly a surprising one. Snowden got a lot of criticism for fleeing the US for Russia and China rather than stay in the US and make a deal with prosecutors. It appears now that Snowden tried working both tracks at the same time, or perhaps one shortly after the other. That makes good sense for Snowden, but the impasse suggests that either he wants too much for his return, or the government wants to prosecute him too much for a deal to get struck.

The question now will be whether recent events in Russia will further incentivize both sides to cut a deal. Snowden’s position as speaker-of-truth-to-power looks more absurd the longer he stays in Putin’s Russia, especially when he acts as a straight man for Putin himself. The US may be more keen to retrieve Snowden and his cache with Putin’s aggression so clearly on display now, too. That may be why Cacheris declined to talk to the media about his relationship with Snowden — to avoid risk of upsetting an applecart or two.