I find the discourse surrounding the Snowden Affair bewildering. The latest reports suggest that the United States is using maximum political leverage, including coercive diplomacy, to discourage small Latin American countries from granting asylum to Edward Snowden. It is also complaining that Russia is giving Snowden ‘a propaganda platform’ and expressing its ‘disappointment’ with China/Hong Kong for its earlier refusal to expel Snowden back to the United States to face charges once his passport was cancelled.
This anger is misdirected. Taking the overall situation into account, whatever anger has been generated by the Snowden Affair should be directed at the United States for expecting other governments under the circumstances to transfer custody over Snowden. From almost every angle of relevant law, morality, and politics, the human rights case for protecting Snowden against the long arm of American criminal law is overwhelming. Anyone who commits nonviolent ‘political crimes’ should almost always be entitled to be protected, and should certainly not be compelled to hole up in an airport transit lounge for weeks of anguishing suspense while governments sort out the interplay between dealing justly with Snowden and not upsetting the diplomatic applecart.
The persisting official U.S. approach was concisely conveyed by an American embassy official in Moscow to a Human Rights Watch representative, who then was apparently asked to relay it to Snowden at his airport press conference held a few days ago: “U.S. authorities do not consider him to be a human rights defender or a whistleblower. He broke the law and he has to be held accountable.” Yes, Snowden broke American law, but he did it to reveal improprieties in the American surveillance programs that raised serious questions of the Constitutional rights of citizens, as well as the overseas legitimate concerns of foreign governments. President Obama made an enigmatic statement to the press about the pursuit of Snowden: “We’re following all the appropriate legal channels and working with various other countries to make sure the rule of law is observed.” If read as I would interpret the applicable rule of law, the United States should abandon its efforts to gain custody as Snowden’s alleged crimes are ‘political offenses.’ Obviously, Obama has a different understanding.
Russia did its part to create legal confusion when the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, told the world media that Moscow was refusing to comply with the American request to turn Snowden over because Russia had no extradition treaty with the United States, but such an assertion overlooks the political offense exception to extradition, which should certainly be applied here.
It has become increasingly evident even to American public opinion that a twisted logic has gripped Washington in this case. What is more, the underlying U.S. assumptions have been partially accepted by many governments throughout the world who should know better, namely that Snowden should not be the benefit of sanctuary in the face of this all-out effort by the United States to prosecute him criminally. There are no applicable extradition treaties that bind the governments to turn Snowden over for prosecution to the United States in the countries where he has so far been present, and even if such a treaty did bind China or Russia, it should not be of help to Washington. Remember the elaborate inquiry into whether the Spanish extradition request in 1998 so as to prosecute the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, should be honored led to an elaborate set of legal inquiries in Britain where he was detained; he was finally sent home from London to Chile on the grounds that his medical condition made him unfit to stand trial in Spain.
It is standard practice for international law to allow governments to refuse a request for extradition in the event that the accusation involves a political crime. It is true that the definition of a political crime is unsettled. It is widely understood that violent and heinous behavior involved in genocide, crimes against humanity, terrorism, and maybe hate speech, are not considered to be ‘political crimes.’ The rationale for this exception to transnational criminal law enforceable is humane and in keeping with a pluralist world of sovereign states. As with any protective policy, there may be a cost, but the democratic ethos is in favor of incurring such costs in the interest of curtailing abuses of state power. Such costs seem worth bearing, especially in the United States, considering several recent trends: projection of global power in a unique manner; imposing a regime of homeland security on the American people that has been shown vulnerable to abuse; a decline in the checks and balance mechanisms that offer the citizenry protection against autocratic tendencies of government, especially under wartime conditions; privatization of the security and paramilitary functions of the state. Snowden’s acts should be seen as swimming against this authoritarian tide.
It is a matter of upholding the quality of world order, as well as supporting an international legal order that makes the world safe for political diversity and dissent. It is the latter norm that is raised by the Snowden disclosures, the global public interest in strengthening the options of individuals who challenge what they believe to be an overreaching of state power. In the world of the 21st century, ideological diversity is less significant than whistleblowing dissent that is a fantastic public service on behalf of democratic openness, countering tendencies to rely on excessive secrecy in the name of post-9/11 security in which literally everyone, everywhere is a hypothetical threat. Of course, the balance of values and interests is not so clear except to conspiracy-minded dogmatists. The state is responsible for protecting its people against threats, and these can be mounted from within and without. It is said that ‘two wrongs don’t make a right,’ but here it is possible that ‘two rights should not be treated as a wrong.’ It may be that Snowden deserves some credit even here as reportedly he has not disclosed some material that would expose the way in which the National Security Agency (NSA) operates, which could jeopardize reasonable data collection procedures.
Should revealing a secret government surveillance system of global proportions be treated as revealing an international wrong? It should be a ‘no brainer’ that Snowden’s alleged crimes are quintessentially ‘political’ in nature, which would make a grant of extradition an unlawful and regressive violation, as well as an encroachment on Snowden’s human rights. Not only this, but by far the most serious ‘crimes’ exposed by Snowden documented the seeming wrongdoing of the U.S. Government and its private contractors, including Snowden’s employer, Booz, Allen, & Hamilton. As the world now knows thanks to Snowden, the controversial surveillance targets were not only the totality of Americans, but, as well, included foreign governments and many of their most confidential activities. Under these circumstances, it seems surprising that Washington has been so vigorous in the pursuit of Snowden under conditions that made it inappropriate to prosecute him for crimes under U.S. law so long as he remained outside the country.
To date, the mainstream media has been dutifully tagging along with the crime chase narrative. The American strategy has managed to keep public attention focused on Snowden rather than on what his disclosures to date have revealed and what further bombshells may be present in the material that is in the hands of the media, but not yet disclosed. It is one more negative example of ‘American exceptionalism.’ It is hard to imagine that the political leadership in Moscow or Beijing, or even London or Paris, would be lecturing Washington in a similar fashion if the shoe were on the other foot. Such a government would probably and sensibly shut up, and hope that the whole mess would quietly slip from view. Why the United States decides to act differently is worth a separate investigation.
We need to realize that extradition is a technique to foster maximum international collaboration designed to encourage the enhanced enforcement of national criminal law. If extradition is unavailable, as here, or even if it had been available, it would be inapplicable, there exists no respectable legal basis for the American international pursuit of Snowden? The approach adopted by Washington is quite absurd if examined objectively, and rests exclusively on its presumed geopolitical clout. What the United States has been arguing is that since it claims the authority to cancel summarily Snowden’s passport (which itself may not be ‘legal’ since the right to travel is constitutionally protected unless there has been a prior formal judicial proceeding), he has no legal right to be present in a foreign country, and hence the politically appropriate act by a foreign government is to expel him forthwith to his country of nationality. In effect, such an approach if generally adopted would make extradition completely superfluous, and in fact, because of its limitations, far less effective than the passport cancellation/expulsion ‘remedy’ that would circumvent the political crimes exception where it is most needed and appropriate.
Lawyers, of course, earn their living by finding ingenious ways to produce counter-arguments that sometimes override not only common sense, but public reason. In this vein, can it be plausibly argued that the crimes charged against Snowden involve espionage laws and theft of government property, and as such, extradition could be granted because such behavior does not deserve to be treated as a political crime? Some commentators have reinforced this assert by pointing to the volunteer Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard, who has languished in American jails for years to show that the U.S. is entitled to gain control over Snowden to punish those who violate its espionage laws. Even the slightest reflection would reject the relevance of such an analogy. Pollard was unlawfully giving highly classified information to a foreign government and apprehended in the territory where the crime was committed, which makes the political nature of the crime irrelevant. If Snowden remained in the United States his political motivations could be argued in a court, but would not exempt him from criminal indictment and prosecution. His crimes could then be explained as politically motivated extra-legal instances of civil disobedience in the Thoreau/Martin Luther King tradition. Snowden’s conduct might also be defended legally by stressing his non-criminal intentions and the ‘necessity’ he reasonably believed provided a basis to reveal the realities about the truly frightening scope and depth of surveillance, and thus avoid the greater harm to public interests by its undisclosed continuation. These were more or less the arguments that Daniel Ellsberg so persuasively relied upon in the Pentagon Papers case 40 years ago to support his contention that the American people were entitled to know how their leaders manipulated facts and law to justify Vietnam War policies.