The United States

Snowden saga

Print edition : July 26, 2013

Demonstrators holding signs supporting Snowden in New York's Union Square Park on June 10. Photo: Richard Drew/AP

Vladimir Putin refused to hand over Snowden but said "he must stop his work aimed at harming our American partners". Photo: MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa. He said the fate of Snowden was in the hands of the Russian authorities. Photo: GUILLERMO GRANJA/REUTERS

A banner supporting Edwar Snowden on display at Central, Hong Kong's business district, on June 18. Snowden, who has applied for political asylum in 20-odd countries, has become a rallying point for civil rights and privacy advocates the world over. Photo: Kin Cheung/AP

As the United States revokes Edward Snowden’s passport and bullies other countries into refusing him asylum, to ordinary citizens around the world he is a folk hero who took calculated risks to expose American hypocrisy on civil rights and international law.

EDWARD SNOWDEN’S travails may be ongoing but it is clear that he now has the support of the international community and many governments as well. The whistle-blower, whose revelations have exposed American double standards on civil rights and international law in an unprecedented way, has asked for political asylum in Ecuador. Other governments have also said that they will consider requests for asylum favourably. The President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, while on a visit to Haiti in the last week of June, said that the international community needed to give Snowden “humanitarian protection”. He revealed that Snowden had not approached Venezuela with a request for asylum but indicated that if such a request materialised, his government would “evaluate” it in a manner similar to that being adopted by Ecuador.

“This guy Edward Snowden deserves humanitarian protection,” said Maduro. He pointed out that if a “humble country like Venezuela was caught spying on the rest of the world, all the organisations, including the United Nations Security Council, would come down on Venezuela straight away”. Maduro compared Snowden’s situation with that of Nelson Mandela during the Apartheid era. He reminded the international community that Mandela was also branded “as a most wanted terrorist by the United States government”. On the other hand, he pointed out, the U.S. allowed well-known terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles sanctuary on its territory. Posada Carrriles was responsible for the downing of a Cuban passenger plane over the Caribbean in 1976. More than 70 people on board that plane were killed.

The Obama administration has been trying to arm-twist Ecuador into denying entry to the whistle-blower. The Wall Street Journal reported that Washington had warned Latin American countries against facilitating the passage of Snowden through their territories. In the specific case of Ecuador, the Obama administration had threatened to scrap the preferential trade agreements it had with the country, along with the withdrawal of its ambassador. On June 27, the Ecuadorean government, in a retaliatory move, announced that it had decided to waive its preferential trade rights with the U.S. And, to add insult to injury, Ecuador also announced a donation of $23 million for human rights training relating to torture and illegal executions in the U.S.

“Ecuador does not accept pressure or threats from anyone, nor does it trade with principles or submit them to mercantile interests, however important they may be,” Ecuador’s Communications Secretary, Fernando Alvarado, said in the country’s capital, Quito. The U.S. is the main trading partner of Ecuador; it buys 40 per cent of the country’s exports, worth $9 billion a year. The preferential trade agreement is set to expire on July 31. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa had expelled the Americans from their military base in the country in 2009. Last year, he gave Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. It is unlikely that he will turn his back on Snowden. The Ecuadorean Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, said in the last week of June that the Ecuadorean authorities were in consultation with their Russian counterparts on the issue.

Complicating the situation

The Obama administration made the asylum request more complicated by revoking Snowden’s American passport as he was flying from Hong Kong to Moscow. Correa has said that Snowden has to physically present himself in an Ecuadorean embassy or enter the country if asylum is to be granted. “Would he be allowed to arrive on Ecuadorean territory? This is something in principle that we have not considered,” Correa said in the last week of June. He also revealed on June 30 that U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden had personally spoken to him requesting the denial of asylum for Snowden. As of now, Snowden, who remains confined to a transit lounge in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport, lacks the necessary travel papers to do so.

President Vladimir Putin described Snowden as a “free man” waiting to leave for a third country. He reiterated that there was no question of Moscow handing over Snowden to the U.S. authorities but indicated that he would be happy to see Snowden out of the country. “The sooner he selects his final destination, the better it is for us and for him,” Putin told the media during his recent visit to Finland. Putin noted that Russia did not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. and that Snowden had not committed any crime on Russian territory.

According to reports, high-level talks are going on behind the scenes between Washington and Moscow to make Snowden leave the airport premises. The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns, is said to be in Moscow to convince the Russian government to hand over Snowden to American custody. President Obama is scheduled to visit Moscow in October. The Russian side does not want the Snowden issue to derail the visit.

The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, during his recent visit to New Delhi, warned Moscow that “there would be consequences without doubt” if the Russian authorities did not give Snowden up. “They are on notice with respect to our desires. It would be deeply disappointing if he was wilfully allowed to board a plane,” Kerry said in New Delhi. Kerry described Snowden as a “convicted felon” and appealed to Russia “to live by the standards of the law”, choosing to conveniently gloss over the gross violation of international law that the U.S. has committed, as illustrated by the Snowden expose.

The Indian government also sought to play down the Snowden issue. India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, while addressing a joint press conference with Kerry, seemed to be supporting the American position by saying that the widespread American surveillance of the world’s Internet traffic helped save lives and thwart terror attacks on Indian targets.

Most of the U.S. anger was reserved for China. Washington accused Beijing of allowing Snowden to leave Hong Kong. The White House spokesman said that China’s “deliberate” action to release “a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant” would have a negative impact on U.S.-China relations.

People’s Daily, reflecting the views of China’s leadership, strongly rebutted Washington. The newspaper said that the decision to allow Snowden to leave Hong Kong was “consistent with the law and entirely defensible” and urged the Obama administration to stop “the hypocrisy of the thief shouting ‘stop thief’”.

Much of the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) hacking was directed at Chinese computer networks. China’s Defence Ministry issued a statement saying that Snowden’s disclosures on U.S. surveillance showed that their country was a victim, not a perpetrator, of cyber spying and hacking.

But, as President Obama was preparing to leave on his tour of three African countries at the end of June, there was a noticeable attempt to cool down the rhetoric on Snowden. Obama in his first statement on Snowden chose to describe the whistle-blower as a “29-year-old hacker” and hinted that Moscow and Beijing’s refusal to hand him over should not be allowed to derail relations with the two countries. He went on to add that the Snowden affair was merely a routine legal case to be dealt with by the competent law enforcement authorities in various countries. Speaking to the media at the beginning of his African tour in Dakar, Senegal, the U.S. President said that he would not be speaking to the Chinese, or the Russian President, on the issue or, for that matter, scramble U.S. Air Force jets to intercept the plane carrying Snowden to a third country.

In a related development, Lonnie Snowden, the whistle-blower’s father, told an American television network on June 28 that he believed his son would be willing to return voluntarily to the U.S. if the government gave an assurance that he would not be arrested before being tried or subjected to a gag order. Snowden, ironically, has been charged under the Espionage Act by a government which has been routinely spying on all the major governments of the world. The senior Snowden said that he has not spoken to his son since April but went on to claim that the WikiLeaks organisation was misleading his son by giving him wrong advice.

Snowden’s revelations are beginning to have a tangible impact in U.S. politics despite influential sections of the media and the establishment standing behind the Obama administration’s routine collection of private data on a gargantuan scale. The news that the NSA was spying on the European Union (E.U.) has further infuriated the Obama administration’s influential European allies such as Germany. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported on June 29 that it had seen NSA documents marked “top secret” that Snowden had with him on the NSA bugging E.U. offices and spying on its internal computer network. Leading European politicians are already describing the latest revelations as a “huge scandal” that could adversely impact relations with Washington.

In the last week of June, 26 U.S. Senators asked the NSA chief to release more information on the government’s bulk collection of data relating to American citizens. American lawmakers were not consulted or informed about the widespread snooping activities of the NSA. Ron Wyden, one of the Senators demanding accountability from the Obama administration, admitted that the American government’s reliance on secret laws “raises civil liberty concerns and all but removes the public from an informed national security and civil liberty debate”.

Since the Snowden affair hit the headlines, President Obama has been spending a lot of his time assuring fellow Americans that their government is not spying on them. At the same time, he and senior administration officials argue that the NSA’s massive surveillance programmes helped foil more than 50 terror plots. But the Obama administration has not been very forthcoming about the alleged plots that the NSA thwarted.

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