U.S. & snooping

Cat and mouse

Print edition : August 09, 2013

Edward Snowden with Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks during a meeting he had with human rights activists at the Sheremetyevo airport on July 12.

The Bolivian presidential plane detained in Vienna on suspicions that Snowden might be on board. Photo: REUTERS

Presidents Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador at an emergency meeting convened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on July 4 following the detention of Morales' plane at the Vienna airport. Photo: Juan Karita/AP

Protesters outside the new National Security Agency data centre facility being built in Bluffdale, Utah, U.S. on July 4. Photo: George Frey/Bloomberg

Mediapersons waiting outside the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow on July 12. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. He may allow Snowden to stay in Russia if it does not affect U.S.-Russia relations. Photo: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP

Latin American countries offer refuge to the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden even as the U.S. attempts to catch him by hook or by crook.

EDWARD J. SNOWDEN continues to be defiant in the face of unremitting hostility from the Barack Obama administration. For the first time in three weeks, Snowden met with Russian parliamentarians and representatives of human rights groups such as Amnesty International on July 12 at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. The American whistle-blower announced that he was applying for temporary political asylum in Russia until such time he could move to one of the Latin American countries that had offered him refuge. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have formally offered him political asylum, but he is unable to travel there without legal papers. He praised these countries and Russia for “being the first to stand up against human rights violations carried out by the powerful” and for “refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation”. Snowden said that he would like to travel to Latin American countries to personally convey his thanks to the people and the leaders there.

In his remarks at the airport transit lounge, Snowden condemned “the historically disproportionate aggression” the Obama administration was waging against him. He vehemently denied being a traitor to his country. “I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg in 1945. Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligation of obedience. Therefore, individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring,” Snowden told the group of activists who had assembled at the airport. He went on to add that since he blew the whistle on the United States administration’s clandestine surveillance on the international community, the U.S. Intelligence Services were trying “to make an example of me, a warning to all others who may speak out as I have”. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights categorically states that every individual “has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.

Earlier, Snowden withdrew his request for political asylum in Russia after President Vladimir Putin told him to stop indulging in activities “aimed at bringing harm to our American partners”. Putin’s spokesman has reiterated that Snowden will be allowed to stay in Russia only if he does not hurt American interests or adversely impact U.S.-Russia relations.

But the Snowden case is a cause célèbre in Russia. Public opinion in the country is solidly with him. In the Russian media, Snowden is compared to Soviet war-time espionage heroes and even to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Americans who were executed for allegedly spying for the Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Many Russian political commentators are of the view that Russia is the safest place for Snowden to stay. Latin American countries, they point out, will not be able to guarantee the secure environment that Russian security services will be able to provide.

The Obama administration wants to lay its hands on Snowden by hook or by crook in order to make a public example of the whistle-blower. It is highly unlikely that either way the Kremlin will take the drastic step of handing Snowden over to the U.S. Russian analysts have argued that Snowden’s case will once and for all negate the U.S. propaganda about President Putin’s domestic policies.

Snowden asked for international solidarity and help in his efforts to get out of the airport transit lounge, where he has been forced to stay since his departure from Hong Kong. Snowden said that he had no regrets about the steps he had taken to reveal the scale of the global programme undertaken by the American surveillance agencies. The Obama administration has invalidated his passport, and has been overtly pressuring governments around the world against granting him political asylum. Sergei Nikitin, head of Amnesty International’s office in Moscow, told the media after his meeting with Snowden that his organisation would continue to pressure governments to ensure that his “unassailable right to claim asylum wherever he may choose” was respected. Nikitin emphasised that Snowden had exposed “unlawful, sweeping surveillance programmes that unquestionably interfere with an individual’s right to privacy”.

Despite President Obama’s assertions in late June that the U.S. government was treating the Snowden affair as a routine matter to be handled by the country’s investigative agencies, recent events belie that assertion. Immediately after Snowden’s meeting with human rights groups at the airport, U.S. State Department officials accused Moscow of providing a “propaganda platform” for Snowden. The White House spokesman said that the Kremlin had gone back on its promise of neutrality in the Snowden affair. He once again demanded that Snowden be handed over to the U.S. authorities to face charges relating to the “unauthorised leakage of classified information”. Obama spoke to Putin on the issue immediately after Snowden’s airport interaction.

Every other day, senior Obama administration officials have been warning Latin American countries about the adverse consequences that would follow if they allowed Snowden in. As soon as Venezuela indicated that it would be granting asylum to Snowden if requested, the U.S. sent a letter demanding his extradition from the country. President Nicolas Maduro immediately rejected the demand. He issued a statement saying that he was exercising his powers to “offer humanitarian asylum to the young Snowden—to protect this young man from persecution by the Empire”. In another speech, Maduro rejected the U.S. charges against Snowden and said that the whistle-blower was being targeted because he “told the truth, in the spirit of rebellion, about the U.S. spying on the whole world”.

Maduro charged that the U.S. was the guilty party in this case. “Who is the guilty one? A young man who denounces war plans, or the U.S. government which launches bombs and arms the terrorist Syrian opposition against the people and the legitimate President, Bashar al- Assad?” asked Maduro. The Venezuelan government is also incensed by reports that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on the late Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, during his visit to Rome in 2006. Brazil’s O’Globo newspaper said, relying on leaked NSA documents, that the U.S. had also been spying specifically on Venezuela’s oil industry.

According to the documents, the NSA also spied on other Latin American countries such as Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador. However, it was Venezuela that was on the NSA’s priority list. O’Globo said that it had evidence to show that the NSA surveillance had been done from a U.S. facility in the country’s capital, Brasilia. The newspaper claimed that this facility was only one among the 16 that the U.S. had in different parts of the world. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said that if the news published in the paper was proved correct, then it would “represent violations of sovereignty and human rights”.

Blocking a President’s jet

The U.S. authorities had warned countries against allowing any plane ferrying the former U.S. spy agency contractor to use their air space. In the first week of July, the plane carrying Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, was virtually forced to land in Vienna, as several European governments blocked their air space for the Bolivian President’s small plane. Morales was returning from Moscow after attending an energy summit. Snowden’s name was not listed in the passenger manifest, yet the Bolivian President’s jet was not allowed to enter the air space of France, Portugal and Spain. When his plane was allowed to land in Vienna, the Austrian authorities insisted on physically inspecting the plane and detained it for over 13 hours. The incident has caused an international furore, with the whole of Latin America criticising the insult to one of their heads of state.

President Morales has said that the treatment meted out to him was “an open provocation” against the continent. The South American regional grouping UNASUR united in solidarity with the Bolivian President against the actions of the U.S. “We are not colonies of the U.S. anymore,” said Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who was present at the meeting. Mercosur, another regional Latin American grouping, which is currently being chaired by Venezuela, has recalled its envoys from Spain, France, Portugal and Italy for consultations in protest against the interception of the Bolivian President’s plane. Bolivia has demanded an apology from the four nations for their action.

Dilma Rousseff said that the actions of the European nations were offensive to all Mercosur leaders. “It is an incredible, unfriendly and hostile action that violates human rights and affects the freedom of transit and movement and the immunity that every head of state enjoys,” the Mercosur leaders said in a statement.

Mercosur also defended the right of member countries to give asylum to Snowden. After a meeting held in the second week of July, the leaders of Mercosur states issued a statement that said the interception of telecommunications and espionage actions by the U.S. were “unacceptable behaviour that breaches our sovereignty and harms relations between nations”. In the final communiqué issued after the conclusion of the Mercosur summit, a strong statement was issued on the issue of granting asylum to Snowden. “We reject any attempt in pressuring, harassment, or criminalising of a State over a country’s sovereign right to grant asylum,” it said.

For that matter, Washington is still seething at Beijing for allowing Snowden to initially find refuge in Hong Kong. The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns, said in Washington that he was “disappointed” with Beijing’s refusal to hand over Snowden when he was in Hong Kong. He was speaking after a two-day conference on cybersecurity with his Chinese counterpart. Burns said that Washington was “disappointed on the way the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing handled the Snowden case, which undermined our trust needed to manage difficult issues”. The Chinese State Councillor, Yang Jichi, said that the central government could not override Hong Kong’s “territorial law” and that the positions taken by Hong Kong and Beijing were “beyond reproach”.

The sympathy for Snowden and the admiration for his courage have only increased worldwide. Opinion polls conducted recently by Quinnipiac University, Connecticut, found that the majority of Americans thought that Snowden was a whistle-blower, not a traitor to their country. The poll showed that support for Snowden’s action was the strongest among the youth.

Snowden’s latest revelations have further underlined the strong nexus between the U.S. government and American technology giants. Microsoft, whose founder is known for his charitable work round the globe, was a willing accomplice of the NSA, and shared data sent over Skype, Outlook.com and SkyDrive. Microsoft’s much-lauded slogan is, “Your privacy, our priority.” Even pro-American governments in the region, like Colombia, were forced to demand explanations from the U.S. government. The Mexican government, which has close relations with Washington, has also demanded “ample information” on the NSA’s spying operations.

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