This week, I saw articles from Forbes and The Register about Russia granting permanent residency to Edward Snowden. I couldn’t help but notice that they left out a couple of key details, and especially since people in this country tend to hold a certain view of Russia and anyone who is associated with them, and since we seem to have such short memories, I thought I would remind people why Snowden ended up in Russia in the first place.
At least Forbes correctly describes him as a whistleblower, where The Register uses the rather less flattering term “leaker.” However, Forbes then goes on to describe Snowden’s actions as “leaking information on the extensive domestic and international surveillance operations undertaken by U.S. intelligence agencies which included eavesdropping on foreign leaders,” which seems to gloss over the part about the NSA’s mass surveillance of U.S. citizens on home soil, which he was recently vindicated on in a federal appeals court. The part that was one of the main subjects of, and the source of the title for, his book Permanent Record, which I will never miss a chance to bring up.
As for the Russia bit, in a 2019 interview with NBC, Snowden discussed with Brian Williams how it was that he ended up there (this section of the video begins around the 35:00 mark). He recounts that he was actually on his way to Latin America, but was stopped in Moscow because the U.S. State Department revoked his passport. Rather than cooperating with the Russian government in exchange for safety, he attempted to seek asylum in 27 different countries on friendlier terms with the U.S., that he felt, in his words, “that the U.S. government, and the American public could be comfortable, that was fine for a whistleblower to be in.” He goes on to describe how, “every time one of these governments got close to opening their doors, the phone would ring, in their foreign ministries, and on the other end of the line would be a very senior American official. It was one of two people: then-Secretary-of-State John Kerry, or then-Vice-President Joe Biden.” The U.S. official would then go on to say that although granting asylum to whistleblowers is a human rights issue, and covered by international law, there would be “consequences” for protecting Snowden. He also brings up another good point:
“If these countries are willing to open the door, that is not a hostile act, that is the act of a friend. If anything, if the United States government is so concerned about Russia, shouldn’t they be happy for me to leave? And yet, we see they’re trying so hard to prevent me from leaving. I ask you: why is that?”
At the beginning of the interview, Snowden reminds those listening of something he has said before: that he is willing to return to the U.S. on “a single condition.” The condition is that he, and every other whistleblower, “have the right to tell the jury why they did what they did.” This is in reference to the fact that those charged under the 1917 Espionage Act are specifically barred from using a public interest defense. As pointed out by the Open Society Justice Initiative:
“The act, passed in 1917 when the United States was in the heat of war preparations (and which, among other anachronisms, outlaws “any … abusive language about … the uniform of the Army or Navy”), does not allow a public interest defense. Nor does it require the prosecution to prove, as most of America’s European allies require, that the accused intended to — or actually did — cause harm to national security.”
This is the same law used against others such as Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning as an excuse to carry out the imprisonment and torture of those who dare expose the crimes of the U.S., or our military and intelligence agencies. Even if you think Snowden should return to face “justice,” looking at either of those cases should show you that justice would not be the likely outcome.
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Thanks for reading!