WASHINGTON — A few members of Congress are now saying they believe the government should attempt to work out a deal to return Edward Snowden to the United States.
The National Security Agency's loudest critics have remained largely quiet on what should happen to Snowden, the former contractor who leaked documents to reveal the extent of the agency's massive domestic surveillance programs. But after the New York Times editorial board called for clemency for Snowden, several members of Congress have said that the United States should at least be flexible when dealing with Snowden.
"I've come to the conclusion that he's more of a whistle-blower than a villain," Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern told BuzzFeed. "I've kind of wrestled with his actions for quite some time because part of me would like to think that in this country there is a process in place where people can do the right thing and not get punished for it. The more I learn about his particular case I'm not sure there was a process in place where he could have presented what he found out and actually changed things."
"I'd rather have him in the U.S. than have him in Russia, and maybe there is an opportunity to work out some sort of a deal," he added. "I think the outrage people in the administration have expressed toward Edward Snowden ought to be more focused on how the NSA broke privacy laws."
McGovern tweeted on Thursday that the Times editorial was "thoughtful" and that he "agreed with much of it."
Florida Rep. Alan Grayson went further, tweeting simply "Give him clemency," along with a link to a story about Snowden.
Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont said the U.S. should be "flexible" with Snowden and was sharply critical of the NSA's actions.
"Snowden may have a violated a law but the NSA violated the constitution, and when you acknowledge that, then just throwing the book at Snowden and turning a blind eye to the NSA is not a good outcome," he said. "So I do believe that we should show some flexibility here that takes into account what he did and how he did it and takes into account what the NSA did and how it did it."
At his final press conference of 2013, President Barack Obama said that he would "leave it up to the courts and the attorney general to weigh in publicly on the specifics of Mr. Snowden's case," but Snowden's leaks had "done unnecessary damage to U.S. intelligence capabilities and U.S. diplomacy."
Obama at the same press conference said he was taking an independent panel's recommendations to reform the NSA "very seriously."
"I'm going to assess, based on conversations not just with the intelligence community, but others in government and outside of government, how we might apply and incorporate their recommendations," Obama said.
There has been plenty of bipartisan outrage on the Hill in regard to Snowden's revelations about the NSA. Sens. Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, and Mark Udall have long called for reforms to the agency and have criticized the data collection programs. But Wyden has not weighed in on what should or should not happen to Snowden. Udall said last Sunday that Snowden should return to the U.S. to face the courts and that he "broke the law."
"He ought to stand on his own two feet. He ought to make his case," Udall said on ABC's This Week. "Come home, make the case that somehow there was a higher purpose here, but Edward Snowden ought to come back to the United States."
Paul last month called the actions of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper "probably more injurious to our intelligence capabilities than anything Snowden did" in an interview with CNN. He said both "broke the law."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who worked with Wyden, Udall, and Paul on an NSA reform bill, wouldn't weigh in on what should happen to Snowden but in statement to BuzzFeed said that Snowden's status "should not distract us from the profoundly critical task of reforming the nation's intelligence programs to make them more accountable and transparent and preserve key Constitutional rights as well as national security."
"Regardless of how we view Mr. Snowden's legal culpability, we can all agree that intelligence reform is vital to protecting rights to privacy and civil liberties and American security," Blumenthal said.
The Times editorial also elicited a strong response from one of the NSA's staunchest defenders, Rep. Peter King, who went on Fox News to accuse the paper of being a "blame-America-first rag" and "apologists for terrorists and go after those in law enforcement and military who are trying to win this war."
McGovern said that he believed if the administration did not do something to reform some of the NSA's programs, it would be incumbent on Congress to do so.
"I'm not saying Edward Snowden's a hero, but the more and more I learn about the overreach by the NSA, and how privacy has been trampled, I think it's outrageous," he said. "That's not the United States of America. I wouldn't be surprised if this was happening in Russia or China, but not here."