With the Obama administration's surveillance and data-collection efforts in the spotlight like never before, the man who exposed the depth of those programs is open to returning to the U.S. under the "right conditions."
A top legal adviser to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who ascended to fame this year and was runner-up to Pope Francis as Time magazine's "person of the year," said Sunday that the famous leaker wants to come back to his home country if he is guaranteed safety and the prospect of a fair and open trial.
"I think he would love to be back in this country. He's a patriotic American. He loves his homeland and would love to come back if the conditions were right," said Jesselyn Radack, national security and human rights director at the Government Accountability Project. She appeared Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Mr. Snowden remains in Russia, where he has been granted asylum. In the U.S., he's been charged with espionage and other offenses and is accused by lawmakers and many in the intelligence community of compromising national security.
Last week, he delivered a "Christmas message," warning that children born today "will never know what it means to have a private moment" amid increased government snooping.
While supporters see Mr. Snowden as a heroic whistleblower who exposed the abuses of government, others see him as possibly guilty of treason.
"I used to say he was a defector. I'm now kind of drifting in the direction of more harsh language, such as traitor," said Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of both the NSA and CIA, who was also on "Face the Nation."
Whatever terms are used to describe him, Mr. Snowden has spurred a national conversation about the balance between national security and Americans' right to personal privacy. That conversation now is playing out at the highest levels of government and in federal courts.
Before leaving for his Hawaii vacation, President Obama was presented with a lengthy report from a five-member panel appointed by the White House to study surveillance practices and make recommendations on how to best protect privacy in the 21st-century, post-Sept. 11 world.
Among many other suggestions, the group said the federal government should stop collecting metadata, massive amounts of information on Americans' telephone calls, and instead should allow private companies or other third parties to retain it.
Mr. Obama is expected to announce changes to government surveillance sometime in January.
Meanwhile, Mr. Snowden's revelations may end up pushing the larger debate all the way to the Supreme Court amid conflicting rulings from federal judges.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled that the NSA's bulk-data collection likely is unconstitutional, and in his words, "almost Orwellian." But just days later, U.S. District Judge William Pauley of New York came to the opposite conclusion, saying the program is a "vital tool" in the fight against terrorism.
When the debate ultimately reaches the Supreme Court, Mr. Snowden will be remembered as the man who thrust the issue into the national spotlight.
Whatever the outcome of that case, lawmakers from both parties believe he eventually must be held personally accountable for revealing sensitive information.
"I think he should have stayed in the United States and been willing to stand up for his beliefs," Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, told "Fox News Sunday."
Mr. Obama and other administration officials have said publicly that if Mr. Snowden returns to the U.S., he will be afforded all the rights and protections of the American judicial system.
Ms. Radack, however, doubts that would be the case.
"The very fact that he's been charged under the espionage act shows that it would not be a fair trial. Those trials take place largely in secret," she said.
Also on Sunday, a German magazine published the latest revelations about the NSA, reporting that one of its divisions consists of hackers who aid in spy operation by intercepting computer messages, defeating encryption technologies and, in one case, even listening in on Microsoft's internal reporting system.
Although Der Spiegel did not divulge its sources, it previously published exclusive articles based on Mr. Snowden's leaks. Citing internal NSA documents, the report blows the lid off a division called Tailored Access Operations, which describes its mission as "Getting the ungettable."
Among the James Bond-type gadgets TAO uses are computer monitor cables modified to record what is being typed across the screen and fake base stations intended to intercept mobile phone signals.
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