Normative Narratives

Transparency Report: Snowden and Snow-now

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Just 6 days ago it seemed like their was a chance that the Edward Snowden debacle could be resolved internally:

The United States has made a formal promise to Russia not to execute or torture Edward Snowden if he is sent home to face charges of illegally disclosing government secrets, and the Kremlin said Russian and U.S. security agencies are in talks over his fate.

The 30-year-old former U.S. spy agency contractor has been stuck in the transit area of a Moscow airport for more than a month despite Washington’s calls to hand him over.

Russia has refused to extradite Snowden, who leaked details of a secret U.S. surveillance program including phone and Internet data, and is now considering his request for a temporary asylum.

In a letter dated Tuesday July 23 and released on Friday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote that he sought to dispel claims about what would happen to Snowden if he is sent home.

“Mr. Snowden has filed papers seeking temporary asylum in Russia on the grounds that if he were returned to the United States, he would be tortured and would face the death penalty. These claims are entirely without merit. Torture is unlawful in the United States,” Holder wrote, without explicit reference to Manning. “If he returns to the United States, Mr. Snowden would promptly be brought before a civilian court.”

“Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.

The latter two offenses fall under the U.S. Espionage Act and carry penalties of fines and up to 10 years in prison.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin had expressed “strong determination”, he said, not to let relations suffer over the dispute “no matter how the situation develops”. Putin himself is not personally dealing with the problem, the spokesman said.

But he reiterated Moscow’s stance that Russia “did not hand over, does not hand over and will not hand over anybody”.

Putin, a former KGB spy, has said Snowden could only be granted sanctuary in Russia if he stopped actions that could harm the United States.

However, a smooth ending to the Edward Snowden saga was not to be, as Moscow today extended “temporary asylum”  to Snowden for one. This effectively puts Snowden out of reach for the next year from the American legal system. News of this decision drew a sharply negative response from the White House:

Russia granted National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden asylum on Thursday and allowed him to leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport for the first time in more than a month, raising the prospect that the U.S. fugitive will remain in Russia for the foreseeable future and become a constant strain on already-tense relations with the U.S.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful request” to have him expelled, said Mr. Obama’s chief spokesman, Jay Carney. “Mr. Snowden is not a whistleblower—he is accused of leaking classified information.”

The decision undermines long-standing law-enforcement cooperation between Moscow and Washington, Mr. Carney said.

Russia’s decision also threatens to derail a planned September summit in Moscow between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which U.S. officials had viewed as a potential breakthrough moment in a monthslong drive to find common ground with Russia on important foreign-policy aims, such as ending the war in Syria. “We are evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this,” Mr. Carney said, adding that no decision had been made.

Senator John McCain, a well respected Senator with unparalleled foreign relations experience (and subsequent influence on foreign relations discourse), was even more critical of the move:

U.S. Senator John McCain is furious about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s newly-acquired asylum, and is demanding that Washington re-examine its relations with Moscow and “strip away the illusions that many Americans have had about Russia.”

Following the news of Snowden’s one-year asylum status in Russia, McCain released an angry statement in which he condemns the “disgraceful” actions of President Vladimir Putin.

“Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States,” the senator said. “It is a slap in the face of all Americans. Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia. We need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we might wish for.”

“Today’s action by Putin’s Russia should finally strip away the illusions that many Americans have had about Russia the past few years,” he said. “We have long needed to take a more realistic approach to our relations with Russia, and I hope today we finally start.”

— 

Russia’s response to American outrage has been weak and arguably oblivious to the reality of the matter:

One of Mr. Putin’s aides, Yuri V. Ushakov, said on Thursday that Mr. Snowden’s fate was of “insignificant character” and thus would not affect relations, according to the state news agency, RIA Novosti. He added that the Kremlin was aware that Mr. Obama might cancel his trip to Moscow but had received no official notification from officials in Washington.

It is unfortunate that Russia decided to grant Snowden asylum, as more than anything it adds to what the article refers to as the “constant strain on already-tense relations with the U.S”. Russia and the U.S. have a very interesting historical relationship. Despite obvious fundamental differences, since the end of the Cold War both Russia and the U.S. have been able to coexist, and at times cooperate, in global affairs despite mistrust and misunderstanding by both sides. Because of this longstanding yet complex / secretive relationship, every official action between the two countries adds on top of an already long list of diplomatic baggage. The Snowden issue is just the most recent manifestation of the somewhat cooperative yet mostly competitive and ideologically divided relationship that defines modern US-Russian relations.

Balking at the G-20 talks would be counter productive; I have gone on record recently (here and here) about the importance of the upcoming G-20 talks. It appears the global community is ready to seriously start addressing issues that require global policy coherence, such as corporate tax evasion, environmental and security issues. Furthermore, it appears the U.S. federal government will simultaneously push legislation to operationalize international agreements, hopefully beginning a trend of coherent global-good-governance. There are a multitude of issues, both bilateral and multilateral, which the U.S. must take a leading role on at the G20 summit. How U.S.-Russia relations evolve from this incident is yet to be determined. A good way to press forward constructively is for Obama to attend G-20 talks. By all means boycott the 2018 Winter Olympics, but the G-20 summit should not be used as a diplomatic bargaining chip, there is too much at stake.

In a way, this is a fitting temporary conclusion to the Snowden saga–a life of constant limbo and uncertainty of his own human rights. These are in essence the opposite of core elements of American society–security, freedom, self-determination and expression

For Mr. Snowden, Russia’s hospitality could prove a mixed blessing. The Kremlin has demanded he cease his “political activities” in order to stay in the country, curtailing his potential options for work.

If Snowden thought the U.S. Federal government was bad, he is about the meet the Kremlin (sounds ominous no?). The Russian government violates human rights with relative impunity, and uses national sovereignty as a shield from accountability for domestic and extra-territorial human rights violations (most prominently the continued provision of advanced arms to Assad in Syria). Snowden thought he would be a hero, instead he is for all intents and purposes under house-arrest in Russia.

If recent events have taught us anything it is that governments with adequate resources, aided with advances in information and communications technology (ICTs), have virtually global surveillance capabilities;. Snowden’s every move will be watched during his time in Russia by both the Obama administration and the Kremlin. In his attempt to expose human rights violations by the U.S. government, Snowden has in effect sacrificed his own rights. He has spent the last few months in Hong Kong and Moscow, not exactly hotbeds for human rights or freedom of expression. His only permanent asylum options at the moment are in Latin American countries, where governments tend to be ill-equip at even providing basic personal security.

The U.S. is not perfect–there is no perfect country. Snowden will come to realize in time that in his pursuit of perfection (or fame or more nefarious goals), he flew too close to the sun. The U.S. Government has numerous domestic and international obligations; at times those obligations appear to be incompatible and difficult decisions have to be made. The U.S. government perhaps should have been more transparent about aspects of PRISM, but our leaders believe that by its nature disclosure would inhibit the effectiveness of PRISM, and chose to keep it secret (until Snowden came along).

I never got why the collection of metadata by the U.S. Federal is such a big deal to people. After all, private sector corporations such as Verizon already have this data; are we worried that our elected officials have information that private companies already own and probably sell to advertisers? There have been exactly 0 confirmed instances of the U.S. government using PRISM data to infringe of the rights of U.S. citizens. As a country we should focus our efforts on the real issues in-front of us–there are many of them–instead of on hypothetical rights violations by the global champion of democracy and human rights.

The U.S. government made it clear that it was willing to issue Snowden a temporary passport to come home and have his day in court. Snowden has officially rebuffed this offer, and after a year in Russia, probably will never receive it again.

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