It was staggering to learn that an official from the National Security Agency actually floated the idea of amnesty for Edward Snowden. I hasten to clarify that I'm not confounded by this idea because I have any particular seething desire to see Snowden pay for what he did. I honestly haven't given Snowden's potential jail time much thought, and that's the truth. My concern has always been with the serially misleading reporting about NSA operations and the deliberately hyperbolic language used by various writers (cough -- Greenwald -- cough), not to mention the proliferation of the documents seemingly to anyone who asks politely for copies.
And that's exactly why amnesty for Snowden is absurd. The idea was proposed by the head of NSA's "Snowden Task Force," Richard Ledgett, who said that it's "worth having a conversation about" allowing Snowden to return to the U.S. as a free man if he agrees to turn over his goodie-bag of documents to NSA. Ledgett's motivation is obviously to retrieve the 10,000-to-1.7 million NSA documents he stole (the number of documents seems to increase every few weeks).
Surely this, official tasked with investigating the Snowden leaks, must know that the documents are utterly irretrievable simply because so many people have copies, say nothing of one or more of the recipients, including Snowden, stashing copies I-don't-know-where. In fact, I'm fairly certain the kid who spritzes the veggies at my local Safeway has several files. But, seriously, who (that we know of) has one or more of the documents Snowden nabbed?
--The Guardian U.K. (unless you believe the August story about the GCHQ computer smash-up)
--The Guardian U.S.
--The New York Times
--Barton Gellman and other reporters from The Washington Post
--South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
--O Globo (Brazil)
--The CBC (Canada)
--The Huffington Post
--Possibly Jeremy Scahill
That's off the top of my head. It's also possible, however questionable, that Ledgett believes Snowden is, one by one, leaking documents to various reporters on an ongoing basis. There's a slim chance Snowden could be doing just that, but based on all accounts, Snowden stopped distributing files when he departed Hong Kong for Russia (although we don't know, and it's doubtful we'll ever know, whether Snowden traded documents for amnesty in Moscow).
Of course, NSA is desperate to stop the ongoing leaks, but ultimately Ledgett, along with the outgoing NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander and his forthcoming replacement can't do a damn thing about it.
It's the spread of the documents that should be most worrisome, to not only NSA but the rest of us, too. Sure, it might help NSA to know specifically what Snowden has as a kind of index for what reporters might reveal next, but the real concern is either that Snowden will engage his "doomsday" switch and dump everything in public, or that one or more reporters will publish, Wikileaks style, documents in a way that's akin to the doomsday scenario.
From the beginning, Snowden apparently insisted that nothing should be leaked that might cause harm to the U.S. or others (except of course his doomsday documents). Greenwald, Poitras and, initially, Gellman, were on their honor to abide those terms. But do all of the other reporters and activists agree with Snowden's initial terms, and are they equally obligated to act in accordance with them? Indeed, Greenwald has engaged in more than a few online fights against trolls who are, remarkably, more activated than he is -- insisting that Greenwald is a coward for not dumping more, while demanding he do so.
As copies of various documents hopscotch from one newsroom or laptop or thumbdrive to another, the risk of a traffic-motivated reporter leaking doomsday-style documents will only increase. And now Greenwald's copies will move to Pierre Omidyar's start-up news site where who-knows-who-else will have access.
Additionally, as more copies circulate, the odds of files being accidentally left de-encrypted, and therefore ripe for the taking by an industrious hacker, rises as well.
This is all to say, yes, the documents are out there and, no, the government can't reacquire them, nor can it stop the proliferation of the files and the subsequent reporting on them. Amnesty is totally ridiculous if this is the goal. The toothpaste can't go back into the vast and pernicious tube. The deed is done. The only thing NSA can really do at this point is to make doubly sure that another Snowden isn't hunched over a desk at a random subcontracting outfit somewhere, shotgunning Red Bull and copying files onto thumbdrives.