Lessons From The Snowden Affair

(1) Just as with Manning, it is beyond dispute that Snowden broke US law. As such, the US government is perfectly entitled to try to apprehend him (on its own soil), request his extradition, and prosecute him. This is quite perpendicular to whether Snowden’s leaks were morally “justified” or not. In some sense, they were. In my opinion, privacy as a “right” will go the way of the dodo whatever happens due to the very nature of modern technological progress. The best thing civil society can do in response is to make the lack of privacy symmetrical by likewise exposing the inner workings of powerful governments, the increasing numbers of private individuals connected to the government who enjoy its privileges but are not even nominally accountable like democratic governments, and corporations. In this sense, I agree with Assange’s philosophy. That said, it’s perfectly understandable that the government as an institution begs to differ and that it has the legal power – not to mention the approval of 54% of Americans – to prosecute Snowden. But!

(2) It preferably has to do so in a way that’s classy and follows the strictures of international law. As I pointed out in my blog post on DR and article for Voice of Russia, treason is not a crime like murder, rape, terrorism, or theft which are pretty much universally reviled (though even these categories have exceptions: Luis Posada Carriles – terrorism; Pavel Borodin – large-scale financial fraud). One country’s traitor is another country’s hero; one man’s turncoat is another man’s whistle-blower. So throwing hysterics about Russia’s refusal to extradite Snowden isn’t so even so much blithely arrogant as it is stupid and cringe-worthy. Would a Russian Snowden, let’s call him Eddie Snegirev, be extradited back to Moscow should he turn up at JFK Airport? To even ask the question is answer it with a mocking, bemused grin on one’s face.

(3) It is true that the US, as a superpower, can afford to flout international law more than any other country. There is no point in non-Americans whining about it – that’s just the way of the jungle world that is international relations. Nonetheless, it can be argued that making explicit just to what extent the European countries are its stooges and vassals – as unambiguously revealed in the coordination between France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy that created a wall of closed off airspace preventing the return of Bolivian President Evo Morales to his homeland on the mere suspicion that Edward Snowden is on board – is perhaps not the best best thing you can do to draw goodwill to yourself. While European governments are by all indications quite happy to be vassals and puppets, many of their peasants don’t quite feel that way – and having the fact presented so blatantly to their faces is just going to create resentment. Why such a drastic step is necessary is beyond me. Why pursuing Snowden so vigorously, who has already leaked everything he has to leak, is in any way desirable beyond the fleeting thrill of flaunting imperial power must remain a mystery.

(4) While Snowden personally comes out as sincere and conscientious, he is profoundly lacking in political awareness. Unlike Snowden and Correa, the Russian authorities have apparently correctly guessed that the US wouldn’t balk at grounding aircraft if they suspected the fugitive was on board; hence, according to British lawyer (and occasional AKarlin contributor) Alexander Mercouris, why Correa ended backing off the asylum offer – getting to Latin America is simply surprisingly difficult. Same as regards Maduro. Russia all but offered Snowden asylum on a platter. Putin’s condition that he “stop hurting the US” was but a formality for Western consumption – considering that Snowden had already, presumably, divulged everything to Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald, and in any case it is standard practice for political asylum claimants to clear anything they wish to say with the authorities of the country offering them sanctuary so as to avoid hurting their interests.

But Snowden, perhaps driven by some mixture of personal principles as well as his perception of Russia as a non-democratic country, withdrew his application for asylum in Russia, and proceeded to send applications to dozens of other countries – including outright vassals like Poland, which wouldn’t bat an eyelid at extraditing him (the country’s Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski is married to Anne Applebaum, a US neocon). That was completely unprofessional, a cheap PR stunt that doubled as a slap in the face to Russia and a display of legalistic ignorance (many countries require the political asylum claimant to be physically present on their territory). I concur with Mercouris’ assessment that Snowden appears to be getting appallingly low quality legal advice from Sarah Harrison/Wikileaks, at least if and insofar as getting real political asylum is his actual goal.

(5) Where can Snowden get asylum? Russia would be the obvious choice, but he seems to have ruled that out as mentioned above. He probably regards it as a non-democratic country, and took Putin’s stated conditions of asylum – no more leaks that embarrass the US – a bit too literally. I originally thought Germany might be feasible – tellingly, it *didn’t* close off its airspace to Morales’ airplane – but then they refused anyway. Venezuela, which is now touted as the likeliest destination, is a fair choice, but it will be difficult to get there, or to Latin America in general. Giving Snowden a military escort to get asylum in a foreign country would be impractical and unseemly in the extreme for Russia. And if European countries are prepared to overturn decades of international legal conventions to – for all means and purposes – hijack the plane of a national leader, even if of a weak and unimportant country, they would have no qualms whatsoever about doing the same to commercial airliners.

An additional problem is that Bolivia, and to a lesser extent Ecuador and Venezuela, are politically unstable – with the opposition consisting of hardcore Atlanticists. Should there be a change of power in those places – be it through the gun or the ballot box – the new authorities would send the likes of Snowden back to the US within the week and apologize for their shameful earlier lack of subservience to boot. Russia too has Atlanticist elements within their opposition, but they enjoy the support of only about 10% of the population – while almost half of Venezuelans voted for Capriles in their last two elections. Besides, as WaPo’s Max Fisher points out, Russia has never extradited any Western defectors – not even during the rule of Gorbachev or Yeltsin. Finally, while being confined to just Russia for decades or even the rest of one’s life is hardly the best of prospects, it surely beats Venezuela not to mention Bolivia (no disrespect to those two fine nations).

(6) There have been calls, including from The Guardian and his dad, for Snowden to show he’s truly a whistle-blower and not a traitor or spy by returning home. The choice is presumably his, of course, but if he heeds them, then more idiot he. While it is perfectly reasonable to say that Russia, Venezuela, or Ecuador are less democratic or free or whatever than the US, that’s kind of beside the point; what concerns Edward Snowden specifically is whether Russia, Venezuela, or Ecuador are less democratic and free than a US supermax prison. And the answer to that is blindly obvious to all but the most committed freedumb ideologues. Even North Korea would win out on that one.

(7) The final thing I would say about this is episode is that it has really demonstrated the breath-taking scope of US power. Power that is not wisely wielded, perhaps, but power nonetheless. It is absolutely impossible to imagine so many European countries jumping through legalistic hoops, burning bridges with one of the world’s major economic and cultural regions, and drawing the massed ire of their own citizens at the request of any other country. And that’s assuming the US even made that request in the first place, i.e. could they have merely been trying to curry favor with their master?

At some level it has always been clear that the Euro-Atlantic West acts as a united bloc – see a map of (1) the recognition of Kosovo and (2) the non-recognition of Palestine – for visual proof of that. Or read the Wikileaks cables for an insight into how European politicians stumble all over themselves in their eagerness to tattle on everything in their country to American diplomats. Still, the grounding of Morales’ jet makes plain the sheer depth and scope of official European subservience better and more concretely than any other event or affair that one can recall. It also makes a mockery of their stated “concern” over NSA spying, deserving only ridicule and mocking dismissal. This is not a moral failing of the US, in fact it can only be commended and admired for bringing so many countries into complete political and cultural submission to it. It is only the lack of backbone and of the will to establish national sovereignty that is contemptible.

While it’s beyond dispute that the Europeans are complete doormats, it’s still worth noting that cautious, business-like China was eager to get rid of Snowden as quickly as feasibly possible – despite the major propaganda coup he delivered unbidden into their hands by demonstrating that computer hacking wasn’t just a one-way street between China and the US. Putin, too, is notable unenthusiastic. One can’t help but entertain dark speculations about the kind of dirt the NSA might have on him should he ever become too enthusiastic about that whole sovereign democracy thing. Counter-intuitively, it is Latin America – the land explicitly subjected to the Monroe Doctrine – that is mounting the most principled stand in support of government transparency and against Western exceptionalism and double standards.

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