There is another reason for a plea agreement: A trial would surely be an extremely disagreeable experience for the U.S. government. It would be a spectacle, the “trial of the century” (at least for a while). Snowden’s case would attract the country’s top defense lawyers, who know every trick for sabotaging a prosecution. They would argue that the court must permit them to disclose confidential information at the trial so that they could mount an effective defense. They would argue that the government must cough up additional classified information—information that Snowden never got a chance to steal—because such information might bolster Snowden’s defense. All this classified information could show that Snowden’s disclosures did not injure the country, or that he had no reason to believe that his disclosures would help foreign countries, or that government officials engaged in abuses we do not yet know about.
These arguments may not be strong in a strictly legal sense, but that is not the point of them. The point is to persuade the court that matters for the Obama administration—the court of public opinion. If a judge forbids Snowden to make these arguments, then the trial will look unfair to the public. If the judge allows the arguments only in closed chambers, this will highlight the secretive nature of the government’s actions. And if the judge were to allow Snowden to make some of these arguments in open court, then additional secrets could be revealed to foreign enemies.