Tag Archives: Snowden

Escaping The Abusive State: After Snowden

5 Dec

 

 

            The more contact one has with the modern state, even in those societies that have long constitutional traditions entrenching civil liberties, the more grounds there are for deep and growing concern. I suppose that the most dramatic exhibition of the dangers being posed as 2014 approaches, and we are reminded that this will be 30 years after 1984, are associated with Edward Snowden’s extraordinary disclosures of the global network of surveillance being operated by the National Security Agency in the United States (NSA).  Such a network presupposes that we are all, that is, every inhabitant on the planet to be regarded as worth investigating as potential terrorist threats, and along the way establishing a huge data bank of information that can be used for nefarious purposes at any point to disempower and subvert protest movements or even blackmail anyone seen to be obstructing projects dear to the government or any special interest group that has the government’s ear on matters it cares about.

 

            In important respects more disturbing than the Snowden revelations was the rabid response of the supposedly liberal government presided over by Barack Obama. No stone was left unturned, other than assassination or kidnapping, in the effort to gain physical custody over Snowden evidently with the intention of prosecuting him to the full extent of the law as an odious criminal offender. Foreign governments were badgered to cooperate in the pursuit, a plane carrying the Bolivian president was improperly denied access to the airspace of several European countries and forced to land in Vienna, because it was suspected of carrying Snowden. Such an enforcement dynamic completely overlooked the political nature of Snowden’s crimes, which have been uniformly regarded as placing an accused individual beyond the reach of extradition if outside of sovereign territory, which was definitely the case here, making Snowden legally unreachable even in the event that countries involved had extradition treaty arrangements for cooperative criminal law enforcement. Such treaties did not exist in relation to China and Russia, the countries where Snowden was physically present, and yet the United States persisted in its demands, and treated the Chinese and Russian governments as behaving in a hostile fashion of diplomatic relevance when they rejected the demands of the U.S. State Department to treat Snowden as a routine fugitive from criminal justice. Not so incidentally, the United States government has long shielded those accused of even violent crimes by foreign governments through reliance on this exception to extradition based on the political nature of the crime.

 

            Perhaps, the most troubling aspect of this still festering situation is the energy devoted to Snowden as the whistleblower, more derisively referred to as ‘a leaker,’ while ignoring implications for a humane and democratic future by treating everyone, everywhere as a potential enemy who would be spied upon to the extent technology allowed. There was some mild pushback by Congress, seeking clearer guidelines on the mandate of the NSA, and searching for the outer limits of the permissible encroachment on the privacy of individuals, governments, and economic entities. In the background is a well-grounded suspicion that part of the motivation for global surveillance is to assure a competitive edge for American property, trade, and investment interests, and to gain dirt on foreign diplomats and political leaders.

 

            Overlapping with the official fury directed at Snowden was the broader anger directed at whistleblowers whose disclosures sought to set off alarm bell. Those who had the temerity to disclose governmental criminal wrongdoing were themselves criminalized by a focus on their breach of  excessive classification restrictions. It should be clear, as highlighted by Daniel Ellsberg’s notable reflections on the release of the Pentagon Papers gathered in his book appropriately titled Secrets, that the excesses of governmental secrecy are joined at the hip to extravagant surveillance in what amounts to a perverse twinning relationship. The very government that refuses to accept restrictions on its invasions of the privacy of its citizens and people around the world, mounts unprecedented and simultaneous claims that it needs to operate without any accountability behind several high walls of secrecy.

 

            The experiences of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are of a piece with that of Edward Snowden: vindictive backlash, exaggerated security claims, and an arrogant refusal to gaze in the mirror. The Wikileaks/Manning disclosures revealed serious war crimes and governmental cover ups,  the existence of which make a strong case for violating pledges of secrecy that are relied upon to hide the ugly dimensions of what is involved in foreign policy, especially in relation military interventions carried out in such distant countries as Afghanistan and Iraq. Should not the American people have a write to know about state crimes committed in their name? Should not the peoples living in foreign countries have the right to know about such crimes that produce suffering and victimization in their supposedly sovereign countries? And when such disclosures do occur, should not the government have the decency to acknowledge its own wrongdoing, and thank the whistleblower and apologize to those who were victimized?

 

            My motivation in writing this piece was prompted by seemingly different more personal outrages associated with the behavior of the liberal state. In the first instance, I have been deeply moved by the continuing tragic saga of Lynne Stewart, a courageous American lawyer who has a long record of defending unpopular political and indigent clients, who has been allowed to languish for months in a Texas jail despite suffering from an acute form of terminal cancer. Her apparent crime that landed her in prison was to pass on information and private messages to the family of ‘the blind Sheik’ (Omar Abdel-Rahman) whom she was representing (alongside Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. Attorney General) in the terrorist conspiracy trial arising out of the earlier 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. What has been most shocking is that despite numerous recommendations from medical and prison officials to the effect that Stewart easily qualifies for ‘compassionate release’ from prison, a position even endorsed by judicial officials, she remains to this day cruelly confined because Charles Samuels,  Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons,  has refused to sign off on her plea. This incarceration of Lynne Stewart is such an extreme instance of vicious and sadistic state behavior toward an honorable citizen that its full horror cannot be fully comprehended by a mere description of her experience. For Lynne Stewart’s story to be credibly portrayed will likely depend on some future artistic enactment as by film or fiction. As so often is true, such a descent into the domain of unspeakable evil can only be grasped if expressed through film or fiction.

 

            My immediate reason for writing in this manner has been an unfolding tale of apparently well-intentioned cruelty by the state that occurred recently in Great Britain. A 35 year old pregnant Italian woman, whose name cannot be disclosed under British criminal law, was visiting the UK a few months ago for the sake of job training course at Stansted Airport in Essex, not far from London. While there she apparently stopped taking medication for a preexisting bipolar condition, resulting in what has been described in the media as ‘a panic attack.’

 

Only then did a perfect storm engulf her life. Her disturbed condition was reported to British authorities under the Mental Health Act whose personnel stepped in and took over the case. In disputed testimony the woman was alleged to need to be constrained. Accordingly, she was transferred to a mental hospital where she was heavily sedated, during which time her baby was delivered by C-Section surgery without her consent, and even her knowledge as she was unconscious. Her lawyer contends that she at all times, including when suffering from mental distress, retained the capacity to give or withhold her consent from the procedure undertaken. If correct, a state-ordered invasive approach to her pregnancy was certainly improper, a violation of the most basic of reproductive rights. Even if she was not sufficiently stable to make an informed decision, it seemed at least necessary to refer such a question to a responsible process of assessment, which was not done as far as is known, or consult with a family member.

 

But the abusive behavior did not stop after the child was born. Quite incredibly, some reports contend that she was not even allowed to see her own baby, while others say she was allowed for two days to have her baby in the hospital room, but it was then summarily removed with the intent to sever her connection permanently. She returned to Italy where her health and mental stability were fully restored by resuming medication at which point she appealed to British courts to acquire custody of the child who had by this time been turned over to foster care. Her appeal was denied despite her Italian nationality, place of residence, and the evidence that she was a competent mother to children growing up under her parental supervision. She didn’t owe the slightest allegiance to Britain and yet her desire and capacity to handle the upbringing of her biological child was rejected by judicial fiat. In a secondary development, her former husband, the father of the child, who was living in America appealed to a British court to have the child brought up by his sister, the aunt of the child, who was certified to be a highly responsible person with excellent parental qualifications and a readiness to undertake the task. The request was denied by the British judge on the ground that there was no ‘blood’ link with the American relative, and that kinship was not sufficient. The result, to date, is the assignment of the baby to a foster home that has no familial connection whatsoever, denying the mother even visitation rights. I doubt that even the most absolutist monarchy would be as contemptuous of humane treatment as has been the behavior of this British welfare/judicial bureaucratic nightmare, an unfolding post-Kafka horror story.

 

            Even granting the well-intentioned innocence of government in relation to these problematic undertakings affecting this mother and child, it is one more distressing example of what happens to people when the government insists that it knows best what to do in situations of admitted social and ethical complexity.  In this instance, it is not acting beyond the law or above the law, but within the law. What took the place was decreed from start to finish by official institutions and administered by bureaucrats probably thinking that they were doing their job in a responsible fashion. As has been observed in some critical writing in the British print media, this story has come to light in part because the victim mother had the resources and composure to seek help from lawyers and friends, as well as the Italian government, and was perceived as a ‘European.’ If instead she was an unlawful immigrant or, worse, a Roma, it is likely that the public would never even have heard of these events, and the whole episode would have been kept within the black box of standard operating procedures when it came to handling the grievances of those among us who are unwanted and marginalized.

 

            In my view, these seemingly disparate occurrences are all expressions of the moral arrogance of the modern liberal state, and its failure to strike a decent balance between freedom and security.  There is no doubt that the recent challenges posed by extremist non-state actors do require adjustments in how government protects those resident within its borders, but the tendency to exaggerate the threat so as to instill sufficient fear in the population to justify the wide spectrum of responses that feature high defense spending, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib at one end and Snowden and Manning at the other end is what should be an occasion for an entirely rational collective panic attack in democratic societies, showing healthy signs of deep attachment to the values and practices of freedom, and when there is instead relative quiet, it adds to concerns about a general mood of passivity, resignation, and even acquiescence in ‘the new authoritarianism,’ encouraging more of the same. Such patterns in the domain of national security is  reinforced by such gratuitous abuses as when harmless prisoners are deprived of contact with their loved ones when at death’s doorstep and a newborn child is removed forever from the love and care of a desiring mother for the sake of some misguided ideas of petty bureaucrats engaged in  ‘social services’ and ‘welfare.’ 

 

            We can and must do better, above all as citizens engaged in the protection of the sort of society we wish to live in; without civic activism of a militant character we can wave goodbye to the promise of genuine democracy.  

Globalizing Homeland Security (revised)

21 Aug

Taking Note: The Drift Toward Autocracy: Revised (several modifications that clarify and reinforce the original text)

            It is not just one thing that should worry us about the authoritarian tendencies of the Obama presidency, but one thing after another. The cumulative effect of it all.

            The latest sign of the times was the August 19 detention of David Miranda, under the British anti-terrorist law for nine hours. His laptop, cell phone, and other electronic devices were also confiscated, and presumably examined. We need to wonder what is so frightening about ‘the Snowden documents’ that it induces these flagrant intrusions on the privacy and confidentiality of journalists, and now even their associates who are not known to be accomplices. keeps reassuring Americans, and indeed the world, that he shares a concern for protecting elemental rights, and yet he seems to spare no means to move against disclosures of information that seems awkward for the United States and some allies even when not of particular interest to Al Qaeda and the like. Just as 40 years ago the government sought to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg, revealing secrets being kept primarily from the American people, and not from the ‘enemy’ in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. It was not a matter of secrecy for secrecy’s sake, but secrecy to sustain the trust of the citizenry by a cover up of lies and deception in an increasingly unpopular and failed war taking many Vietnamese and American lives.

            Keep in mind that by the rules of the road in international affairs, Moscow could not extradite Snowden, and yet Washington insisted, and when spurned, ‘punished’ itself more than Russia and Putin, by canceling the presidential meeting scheduled for Russia in September to discuss issues of common concern, including Syria, Iran, North Korea, nuclear arms control, and presumably the horrifying turmoil that is turning the Middle East into a war zone. Any fool would realize that at this point the United States has much more to gain from a cooperative rather than an alienated Russia, and so what is the point of showing Snowden childish pique by this rebuff of Putin? It would seem that Washington’s concept of such cooperation between the two countries is entirely hegemonic: the United States sets the tune, and Russia is supposed to sing the song. There are no honest disagreements. Obama’s much heralded ‘reset’ approach to U.S./Russian relations is a one-way street as near as I can tell, and when the songsters in Moscow provide their own lyrics, the music makers in Washington turn hostile, claiming disappointment, dismissing the Russian version of the song as disruptive ‘noise.’

 

            Also, it is not an unfriendly gesture to accord Snowden asylum in view of his political crimes, the punitive approach adopted by the Obama presidency for breaches of secrecy, and the unwarranted cancellation of his passport depriving him of valid travel documents by state fiat without even granting a day in court. On the contrary, asylum for Snowden is what a human rights culture should lead us to hope for in such situations. Was it really sensible diplomacy to use America’s leverage in the NATO region to disrupt the European flight of Evo Morales, violating the civil air international navigational rights of Bolivia, and also encroaching upon its sovereignty and insulting its leader. As it turned out, this effort to capture Snowden while he was mistakenly thought to be on his way to asylum in Bolivia, angered and affronted all whole  of Latin America, including the usually placid Brazil, which even speculated that it might not now continue with its plan to make a large purchase of fighter aircraft from Boeing. It would seem that the Obama presidency loses its composure and moral compass as soon as some of its dirty secrets are told, whether involving war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan or human rights violations around the world.

There are two principles at stake that both are protective of Snowden: first, extradition is not legally permissible because of the political nature of his crime; secondly, asylum is appropriate because of the evident intention of the United States to punish Snowden for the disclosure of information that is protective of the global public good, exposing surveillance, intrusions on privacy, and threats to democracy both in the United States and throughout the world.

 

            Instead of such a display of childish frustration manifest as statist fury, Obama would have helped his cause much more by declaring the Snowden disclosures as a ‘teaching moment,’ an occasion both to discuss the post-9/11 pressures to gain information and the threats poses to freedom and democracy by the inflated demands of ‘homeland security,’ especially when the homeland becomes equated with the world.

 

            The road to autocracy in America, aside from the plutocratic ride of the 1%, tunnels through mountains of secrecy, a panopticon of surveillance, drone warfare, White House approved assassination lists, death squads roaming foreign lands, and a globe-girdling militarism manifest in a network of hundreds of foreign bases, space satellites, provocative military exercises, and outmoded strategic doctrines.

Globalizing Homeland Security

20 Aug

Taking Note: The Drift Toward Autocracy

 

            It is not just one thing that should worry us about the authoritarian tendencies of the Obama presidency, but one thing after another. The cumulative effect of it all.

 

            The latest sign of the times was the August 19th detention of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, at Heathrow Airport under the British anti-terrorist law for nine hours. His laptop, cell phone, and other electronic devices were also confiscated, and presumably examined. We need to wonder what is so frightening about ‘the Snowden documents’ that it induces these flagrant intrusions on the privacy and confidentiality of journalists, and now even their associates. President Obama keeps reassuring Americans, and indeed the world, that he shares a concern for protecting elemental rights, and yet he seems to spare no means to move against disclosures of information that seems awkward for the United States and some allies even when not of great interest to Al Qaeda and the like. Just as 40 years ago the government sought to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for revealing secrets being kept from the American people, and not from the ‘enemy’ in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. It is not a matter of secrecy for secrecy’s sake, but secrecy to sustain the trust of the citizenry by a cover up of lies and deception.

 

            Keep in mind that by the rules of the road in international affairs, Moscow could not extradite Snowden, and yet Washington insisted, and when spurned, ‘punished’ itself more than Russia and Putin, by canceling the presidential meeting scheduled for Russia in September to discuss issues of common concern, including Syria, Iran, North Korea, nuclear arms control, and presumably the horrifying turmoil that is turning the Middle East into a war zone. Any fool would realize that at this point the United States has much more to gain from a cooperative rather than an alienated Russia, and so what is the point of showing Snowden childish pique by this rebuff of Putin? It would seem that Washington’s concept of such cooperation between the two countries is entirely hegemonic: the United States sets the tune, and Russia is supposed to sing the song. There are no honest disagreements.

It is a one-way street as near as I can tell, and when the songsters in Moscow provide their own lyrics, the music makers in Washington turn hostile, claiming disappointment.

 

            Also, it is not an unfriendly gesture to accord Snowden asylum in view of his political crimes and the punitive approach adopted by the Obama presidency for breaches of secrecy. On the contrary, it is what a human rights culture should lead us to hope for in such situations. Was it really sensible diplomacy to use America’s leverage in the NATO region to disrupt the European flight of Evo Morales, not only violating the navigational rights of Bolivia, and also encroaching upon its sovereignty and insulting its leader. As it turned out, this effort to capture Snowden while he was mistakenly thought to be on his way to Bolivia, angered and affronted all of Latin America, including the usually placid Brazil, which even speculated that it might not now continue with its plan to make a large purchase of fighter aircraft from Boeing. It would seem that the Obama presidency loses its composure as soon as some of its dirty secrets are told, whether involving war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan or human rights violations around the world.

 

            Instead of such a display of childish frustration, Obama would have helped his cause much more by declaring the Snowden disclosures as a ‘teaching moment,’ an occasion both to discuss the post-9/11 pressures to gain information and the threats poses to freedom and democracy by the inflated demands of ‘homeland security,’ especially when the homeland becomes equated with the world.

 

            The road to autocracy in America, aside from the plutocratic ride of the 1%, tunnels through mountains of secrecy, a panopticon of surveillance, drone warfare, White House approved assassination lists, death squads roaming foreign lands, and a globe-girdling militarism manifest in a network of hundreds of foreign bases, space satellites, provocative military exercises, and outmoded strategic doctrines.

Snowden’s Post-Asylum Relevance

15 Aug

 

            Now that Snowden has been given temporary asylum in Russia for a year, attention in the drama has shifted in two directions, although overshadowed at the present by the horrific happenings in Egypt and Syria. The Snowden issues remain important, and it is too soon to turn aside as if the only question was whether the U.S. Government would in the end, through guile and muscle, gain control of Snowden. Among the issues that should continue to occupy us are as follows:

 

            –interpreting the negative impact on U.S.-Russia relations;

            –the claim that if Edward Snowden is a sincere whistle-blower he will now, despite asylum, voluntarily return to the United States to tell his story in open court so as to answer charges that he is guilty of criminal espionage and conversion of government property.

 

            As before, to grasp this post-asylum phase of the Snowden drama a few aspects of the background need to be appreciated:

            –it continues to bias the public to describe Snowden as ‘a leaker,’ which is the usual way he is identified in the mainstream media, including such authoritative newspapers as the New York Times and Washington Post; on the right, he is simply called ‘a traitor,’ and for the liberal elite the jury is out on whether to conclude that Snowden is ‘a whistle-blower’ deserving some belated sympathy á la Ellsberg or ‘a traitor’ for his supposed gifts to the enemies of the United States that undermine ‘security,’ and deserve harsh punishment. As always, language matters, and its careful analysis is revealing as to where to locate ‘the vital center’ of American and international opinion;

              Snowden’s own statement of his rationale for acting ‘unlawfully’ seems credible and idealistic, and given the wrongful nature of what was revealed and its bearing on the constitutional rights of Americans and the norms of international law, should have been sufficient to induce a humane government to drop all charges, and even acknowledge Snowden’s service as a dutiful citizen, inviting his return to the United States. Here are Snowden’s words befitting someone who deserves exoneration not criminal confinement: “America is a fundamentally good country; we have good people with good values who want to do the right thing, but the structure of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics.”  

            –Russia (and China) never had an obligation: legal, moral, and political, to transfer Snowden in response to the extradition request of the United States Government. Even if there had been an extradition treaty, ‘political crimes’ are not subject to extradition for good reasons. In a plural international order, it is highly desirable to provide foreign sanctuary to those who act peacefully in opposition to an established national political order. The United States itself has engaged repeatedly in such practice, shielding even political fugitives who have engaged in terrorist acts, provided only that the target government was viewed as hostile by Washington at the time of the alleged crimes, e.g. Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela;

            –the rationale for refusing to extradite Snowden is particularly strong given the nature of his disclosures, the substance of which have evoked strong denunciations from a range of foreign governments, including such friends of the U.S. as Brazil and the United Kingdom; although espionage has long been routine in international relations, the deliberate and comprehensive spying on foreign citizens and confidential governmental undertakings is treated as unacceptable when exposed, and would be viewed as such if Russia (or any country) was detected as having established such a comparably broad surveillance program in the United States; there is an admitted schizophrenia present, making their spies criminals, ours heroes, and vice versa; such are the games played by states, whether friends or enemies;

            –the United States angered a number of countries by its tactics designed to gain custody over Snowden, especially in Latin America. Its hegemonic style was most crudely displayed when it succeeded in persuadingseveral European governments to deny airspace to the presidential plane carrying the Bolivian president , Evo Morales. It is almost certain that the United States would treat such behavior as an act of war if the situation were reversed; more privately, it evidently cajoled and threatened foreign leaders via diplomatic hard ball to withhold asylum from Snowden. Such an effort, in effect, attempted to subvert sovereign discretion in relation to asylum as a respected human rights practice entirely appropriate in the context of Snowden’s plight, which included, it should be remembered, the voiding of his U.S. passport;

            –Obama has finally admitted at a press conference of August 11th that negative reactions even in Washington to what was widely perceived as surveillance far in excess of what could be reasonably justified by invoking post 9/11 security, was prompting the government to take steps to protect privacy and roll back the program.  Whether these planned reforms will amount to more than gestures to quiet the present public uproar remains to be seen. Obama did acknowledge, what everyone knew in any event, that it was the Snowden disclosures that prompted such official action at this time, but even with this show of recognition, the president still called on Snowden to return to the United States to tell his story to a criminal court if he seeks vindication. In his words, if Snowden thought he had done the right thing, “then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case.” Really!

 

            In the aftermath of the Bradley Manning saga, the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, the acquittal of Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, and the denial of ‘compassionate release’ to Lynne Stewart a brave and admired lawyer with a reputation for defending unpopular clients, who lies shackled in a Texas jail while dying of terminal cancer. It could only be a naïve fool who would risk their future on a scale of justice offered to Snowden by the American criminal law system in light of these judicial and governmental outrages. It seems rather perverse for Snowden’s father, Lou Snowden, to be reported as planning to visit his son in Moscow with the intention of urging his return to face charges, although only if the government provides appropriate reassurances. It should by now be obvious that such reassurances to Snowden would be meaningless even if made in good faith by the Attorney General. Normally, the judge and jury in any criminal trial involving alleged breaches of national security defers to the government’s view of the situation and would be unlikely to allow Snowden the option of introducing evidence as to his motivation, which is normally excluded, especially if classified material is at stake. In a trial of this sort the government only needs to show criminal intent, that is, the deliberate flouting by Snowden of relevant American law. Since this is uncontested, it would mean that Snowden would have to claim ‘necessity,’ a defense rarely entertained by American courts, and here would also require that Snowden be able to depict the surveillance system and why it was a threat to American democracy and the rights of American citizens, which could not be done without declassifying the very documents that Snowden is accused of wrongfully disclosing.

 

 

A Tale of Two Texts

 

            Without dwelling on their detailed character, it is worth noting two texts that illustrate the range of reaction to the Snowden controversy. The first is by Thomas Friedman, the NY Times columnist, with a flair for pithy supercilious commentary on the passing scene, and an arrogance rarely exceeded even in Washington. The second is by Antonio Patriota, the foreign minister of Brazil, a country that has rarely seldom its voice to question even the most questionable behavior of its hegemonic neighbor to the North.

 

            Friedman’s column, published on August 13, is entitled “Obama, Snowden and Putin,” and its theme is that Snowden and Putin have an opportunity to overcome their bad behavior by seizing the opportunity for a second chance. Snowden is supposed to come home, face trial, and show the country by so doing allow American courts to make the judgment as to whether to view him as ‘whistle-blower’ or ‘traitor.’

 

            As for Putin, even before angering the United States by giving asylum to Snowden, he gave up the ‘reset’ opportunity given by Obama for good relations with the United States. According to Friedman, Putin’s failure was not repression at home, but his failure to follow the American lead in foreign policy, whether on Syria, Iran, cyber security. And from this outlook, Putin is seen as staking his domestic political future in Russia through an alleged adoption of an anti-American set of policies. Friedman never pauses to wonder whether American policies in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world are worthy of support. He never asks whether Putin was right or wrong in defying Obama in the Snowden context. He never notes that Moscow was very forthcoming in cooperative law enforcement in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing last April, or that Putin expressed his hope that the Snowden incident would not harm relations between Russia and the United States. Friedman did not even pause to wonder about the provocative nature of American joint military exercise with Georgia a hostile presence on the border of the Russian heartland or the way in which NATO has been given a second life after the Cold War that includes the deployment of defensive missile systems threatening to Russia.

 

            What is most astonishing is that Friedman exempts Obama from any blame, presumably because he doesn’t need a second chance. It seems Friedman conveniently forgets the heavy handed abuse of Manning, the refusal to look into the substance of the war crimes disclosed by the WikiLeaks documents, and the belated admission that the surveillance network had overreached legitimate security requirements. It would seem that with Guantanamo still open, and engaged in the force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees, most of whom are deemed innocent by their captors, would be a gaping wound in the body politic that might call for presidential remedial intervention! And nowhere does Friedman note that Obama’s handling of the Snowden case needlessly damaged America’s relations in the Western Hemisphere. But do not hold your breath until Friedman makes such comments that would surely be unwelcome in the White House.

 

            In contrast, hampered in rhetoric by traditions of diplomatic courtesy, Foreign Minister Patriota, made the following statement on the Snowden disclosures at the UN Security Council on August 6th: “..the interception of telecommunications and acts of espionage, practices that are in defiance of the sovereignty and in detriment to the relations among nation. They constitute a violation of our citizen’ human rights and the right to privacy.” The minister then goes to say that several leading states in Latin America, including Brazil, intend to pursue their grievance in other venues of the UN, including the Security Council. He explains that this “is a serious issue, with a profound impact on the international order. Brazil has been coordinating with countries that share similar concerns to uphold an international order that is respectful of sovereignty of States and of human rights.” Also, Mr. Patriota welcomed the statement of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who called attention to the Snowden disclosures as revealing forms of surveillance that violate Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

 

            These two texts illuminate the inside/outside nature of international relations brought to the attention of scholars a decade ago in the work of R.B.J Walker. Inside of America, the problems are seen as relating to Snowden,and his culpability combined with a superpower’s frustrations resulting from an inability to swallow him whole. Outside America, especially in Latin America, the domain of gunboat diplomacy and the Monroe Doctrine, the focus is on the fundamental logic of reciprocity upon which peaceful and friendly relations among sovereign states depends. Nothing better shows the hegemonic nature of the United States presence in the world than its unyielding refusal to grasp, let alone accept, this logic of reciprocity even in dealing with friends and neighbors.

 

           

 

            

What If a Russian Snowden?

9 Aug

Political Crimes’ are Non-Extraditable and Snowden’s Transfer to the United States for Prosecution would have been a Setback for Human Rights and International Law

 

What is most troubling about how the Snowden case has played out diplomatically and via the media is the almost total refusal to focus attention on the central legal, moral, and political issues. The United States Government from the outset has acted as if it is entitled to have Snowden transferred to its custody because he is a fugitive from American criminal justice. Pursuing this line of reasoning, Washington has exerted pressure on Latin American governments not to grant Snowden asylum and expressed disappointment with Hong Kong, China, and Russia for their refusal to comply with the U.S. request. The assumption has been that this is a simple instance of cooperative law enforcement, and it is thus unfriendly and unreasonable for another government to shelter Snowden by a grant of asylum.

Barack Obama has underscored the importance he gives to this issue by canceling a scheduled a high profile summit meeting in September with Vladimir Putin. He even contends that Russian non-cooperation in relation to Snowden exhibits a ‘Cold War mentality’ that backslides from recent instances of Russian-American cooperation such as after the Boston Marathon bombing. Fairly construed, it would seem that it was Obama, not Putin, who was guilty of Cold War posturing. Recall that even during the Cold War Nixon agreed to meet with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow at the height of international tensions. It is Obama who frequently tells us of his readiness to negotiate even with the most obdurate of Republican hardliners, but apparently this willingness does not extend to foreign leaders who fail to do what Washington’s wants! Further, it should be appreciated that it is Putin who has affirmed from the outset that he didn’t want the Snowden incident to harm Russia’s relations with the United States. Even after the cancellation of the diplomatic meeting of heads of state, Putin has expressed regret rather than righteous indignation, or even disappointment. As so often, the misuse of political language, 1984 style, inverts reality, and misses what could have been used as ‘a teaching moment’ on the protection of human rights and the promotion of political pluralism in a world of sovereign states.

The misleading character of this Snowden discourse also goes largely unnoticed because it has been not substantively contested, especially by China and Russia. The Latin American triumvirate of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua base their offers of asylum on a principled human rights rationale, but even they do not explain their reasoning, especially its legal roots and political justification. All of this leaves a false impression that both sides of the debate about Snowden are acting within a domain of pure discretion, and even leading human rights organizations have reinforced such a misunderstanding by remaining largely silent spectators. As a result, Obama’s petulant cancellation of the summit, and with it an important opportunity on which to explore ways to end the Syrian internal war and to avert a military confrontation with Iran is irresponsibly lost, and for what?

The overall situation could have been far better understood if all parties involved had put forward arguments that articulated their claims in a coherent manner. The United States could have then insisted that despite Snowden’s claims of a political motivation, his acts of espionage and conversion of government property, should not be viewed as ‘political crimes.’ Such a position could have included the assertion that the revelation of American surveillance efforts endangered national and global security, putting the American people and foreign countries at risk, and that there existed a world interest in preventing terrorism creating a shared interest in the enforcement of criminal law. Such a rationale would doubtless include an insistence that present levels of secrecy and scrutiny were reasonable, restricted, and necessary. Further, it would be claimed that the collection of data was done in a non-invasive manner protective of privacy to the extent possible, and designed only to identify suspicious behavior. In effect, the U.S. Government could have argued that what Snowden did was tantamount to complicity with ‘terrorism’ and should be dealt with as a matter of transnational criminal law enforcement and diplomatic cooperation so as to serve the global public good and promote human security.

The Russian position would rest on a contrary line of reasoning based on the belief that Snowden’s acts clearly constituted a ‘political crime’ because of the political nature of what was revealed, the absence of any commercial motivation, the absence of any violent acts, and the evident intention of Snowden to warn the peoples and governments of the world about legally dubious secret and excessive encroachments on privacy and confidentiality of communications. This means that even if an extradition treaty between the countries had existed to oblige Russia to cooperate with the United States in relation to the enforcement of criminal law, a request to extradite Snowden would be rejected because of the nature of his alleged crimes. It is standard practice, long upheld in doctrine and practice by the United States as well, to include a political crimes exception to the mutual obligation to extradite.

In fact, if Russia had transferred Snowden to the United States for prosecution, there would have been a widespread public outcry, no doubt intensified by the perception that other whistleblowers in the security area, especially Bradley Manning and Julian Assange have been recently subject to vindictive and abusive treatment for comparable breaches of American secrecy in the name of national security. The Russian decision that Snowden’s acts should be treated as political crimes seems convincing and reasonable, although regrettably  not articulated along these lines.

As should be obvious, my sympathies lie with the governments that seek to provide Snowden with sanctuary, treating him in effect as ‘a prisoner of conscience’ and someone whose acts will be remembered not for their alleged criminality, but because they raised vital concerns about the nature and proper limits of democratic governance in the 21st century. What Snowden did was not easy. It has established him for many of us as a brave individual who had the courage to step outside the edifices of government and corporate bureaucracy to scream ‘enough!’ Perhaps, the scream has come too late, past the tipping point in this ominous revelation of a digital panopticon. Let us hope not.

In each of these instances where government secrets of the United States were disclosed, the leadership of the country has refused to discuss the substantive issues raised beyond a monolithic denunciation of ‘the leaker’ and a less than credible plea, ‘trust us!’ Trust us, the national security government as we have the experience, knowledge, and sensitivity to strike the right balance between the requirements of security and the protection of freedom. ‘Fooling most of the people most of the time’ is not a prescription for sustainable democracy even acknowledging the vulnerability of the country to the difficulties of addressing the security threats posed by extremist violence in the post-9/11 world.

Unfortunately, also, the most influential media in the United States has not helped clarify the terms of debate by reference to the legal, moral, and political issues. Instead it has largely exhibited its lack of independence and pro-government bias in the Snowden Affair in three major ways:

–consistently referring to Snowden by the demeaning designation of ‘leaker’ rather than as ‘whistleblower’ or ‘surveillance dissident,’ both more respectful and accurate;

–totally ignoring the degree to which Russia’s grant of temporary refugee status to Snowden for one year is in full accord with the normal level of protection to be given to anyone accused of nonviolent political crimes in a foreign country, and pursued diplomatically and legally by the government that is seeking to indict and prosecute; in effect, for Russia to have turned Snowden over to the United States under these conditions would have set a morally and politically scandalous precedent considering the nature of his alleged crimes; such a decision would have been especially objectionable as there was no extradition treaty that established any legal obligation to hand over individuals accused of crimes by a foreign government, and thus to transfer Snowden would have meant doing  gratuitously what even a treaty had it existed would not have required;

–failing to point out that espionage, the main accusation against Snowden, is the quintessential ‘political offense’ in international law, and as such is routinely excluded from any list of extraditable offenses; there are good reasons why the safety valve provided by whistleblowers and dissidents is especially valuable for the citizenry of democratic societies at the present time. When the nature of security threats is so widely dispersed, and can extend to citizens and the far corners of the earth, the possibility of anti-democractic abuse is great. What Snowden has revealed, shows that this danger is more than a possibility, and calls for remedial action in the United States that establishes more restrictive guidelines on what the government may do in relation to privacy and confidentiality than previously existed. In effect, Snowden performed a public service that is being indirectly acknowledged by new attention given in Congress and by the media to a rebalancing of security and freedom more responsive to the values of privacy.

If these elements had been clearly articulated, the United States Government would have seemed ridiculous to complain about the willingness of some foreign governments to give Snowden asylum, and worse than complain, to use its diplomatic leverage in relation to small and vulnerable government to induce them to do the wrong thing. The Obama administration, and Senate hot heads could call Snowden a traitor and bemoan his unavailability for prosecution to their heart’s content, but such behavior would be then seen for what it was: a petulant empire exhibiting its rage and frustration because its hard power global presence was of no use, and its policy options were effectively constrained because other countries abided by the rule of law. Under these conditions to be threatening foreign governments with adverse diplomatic consequences if they refuse to play ball is not only exhibiting a child’s frustration, but it is self-defeating. If properly presented, those countries that offered asylum or refused Washington’s demand for the transfer of Snowden to American custody were behaving in accord with the best teachings of human rights. What should be surprising is that more governments were not forthcoming, leaving it to such small countries as Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to withstand the strong arm tactics of the United States, perhaps signaling a welcome new resolve throughout Latin America to no longer accept their former regional identity of providing a backyard for the benefit of the colossus of the North.

If anything, President Vladimir Putin, considering the nature of the Snowden disclosures about the global reach of American surveillance systems, acted with an exceptional respect for the sensitivities of the United States. Instead of merely pointing out that Snowden could not be transferred to the United States against his will, Putin went out of his way to say that he did not want the incident to harm relations with the United States, and beyond this, to condition a grant of temporary asylum on Snowden’s unusual pledge to refrain from any further release of documents damaging to American interests.

Such a tactful approach to a delicate situation hardly merits the hyperbolic aggressive words of the supposedly liberal Democratic senator from New York, Charles Schumer: “Russia has stabbed us in the back..Each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another turn of the knife.” We should ask these deeply aggrieved senators for honest answers, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who added their own fiery denunciations of both Snowden and Russia, what they would have done if the situation had been reversed—if a comparable Russian whistleblower had revealed a Russian surveillance system that was listening in on secret government deliberations in Washington as well as invading the privacy of ordinary Americans. I suspect they would have demanded that Obama cancel the meeting because of what such disclosures revealed about Russia’s wrongdoing.

I would expect that the righteous indignation surrounding such revelations and the gratitude in the United States that would be bestowed on a Russian Snowden would know few bounds. The American media too in that situation would have been quick to produce experts on a nightly basis explaining why extraditing such a person would be wrong, and that there existed a contrary duty to provide sanctuary from the harsh workings of the Russian criminal justice system. Pious suggestions would be made that this Russian Snowden is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a not so subtle way, the Snowden diplomacy is yet another illustration of American exceptionalism: that is, there is an obligation for others to do what our government would never think of doing. What might be called ‘the iron law of hegemony.’ International law and morality operate on a contrary logic: equal situations should be treated equally. Revealingly, American domestic law is clear about its commitment to protect a Russian Snowden: “No return or surrender shall be made of any person charged with the commission of any offense of a political nature.” 18 United States Code §3185. The United States has repeatedly shielded even individuals associated with violent political acts if the target involves a hostile government or its citizens and property, most notoriously Cuba.

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Global Big Brother and the Snowden Hollywood Chase

16 Jul


The post below is a major revision of another piece on the Snowden Affair that was published in AJE. I have dwelled on the pursuit of Snowden because it raises such vital issues of principle, but also because so much of the public discourse has proceeded on a mistaken understanding of the applicable international law. Beyond the legal guidelines on extradition and asylum that are applicable, there are considerations of world order: protecting dissent and pluralism in a global setting in which the principal political actors are sovereign states that increasingly rely on secrecy and security rationales to constrain democratic open spaces. What Snowden did was to expose this dynamic of constraint in relation to secret surveillance programs administered  by private, for profit, contractors. Also exposed was the ‘Global Big Brother’ implications of extending surveillance to foreign societies and their governments. It is these questions that should receive our attention, and the Hollywood circus chase of Edward Snowden should cease for humanitarian and political reasons.

 

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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 cannels 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 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 more further bomb shells 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, it can 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 contiuation. 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.

 

What the U.S. Government is attempting with Snowden, it seems, is a classic instance of bait and switch. Since extradition could not get the results Washington so desperately wanted even if it had been available, only diplomatic leverage could do the job. Here international law is less help to Snowden, although I would have hoped that international morality would come to his rescue. The debate now evidently swirls around the appropriateness of a grant of asylum by some foreign government, and securing safe passage to such a country. Surely, a foreign government that acceded to American demands and handed Snowden over for prosecution would bear the responsibility of knowing that Snowden’s imprisonment would follow as certainly as night follows day, and that they were weakening the protection of individuals who are wanted by governments eager to prosecute political crimes.

 

So far no government has been so craven as to adopt such a course of action, although none has really mounted a principled challenge to what the United States has done, and several European states have unlawfully denied air navigation rights to Bolivia’s presidential plane because the United States suspected that Snowden was on board. And apparently Austria allowed the plane carrying Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, to make an emergency landing and then be searched, and only after it was found that he was not on board was the plane allowed to resume its flight. If he had been on board, then issue of transfer would have been raised.

There does exist an extradition treaty between Austria and the United States that entered into force in 2000, and contains the following provision in Article 4(1): “Extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense.” End of story!

 

States possess wide discretion with respect to asylum policy, although asylum  is conferred as a human right by Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Asylum should be granted whenever there exists well-founded grounds for fearing persecution if the person in question is expelled to the country of nationality. The granting and withholding of asylum has always been surrounded bycontroversial ideological considerations. During the Cold War the United States, although not formally granting asylum, never deported someone seek sanctuary from Castro’s Cuba or other Communist countries and rarely allowed sanctuary for claimants from anti-Communist countries even if fears about their wellbeing if returned were well established. It is far preferable to put asylum policy on a principled basis, but as matters now stand, there is no international legal standards that govern asylum practice.

 

Because asylum, unlike extradition, is treated as discretionary at the national level, diplomatic pressure is to be expected. Asylum is situated at the interface of law and morality, creating ample room for political maneuver. Intense geopolitical pressures can be brought to bear as in this case, but inappropriately from the perspective of human rights or the maintenance of a democratic and pluralist world order. It is particularly unseemly to place small Latin American countries under the gun of United States’ retaliatory diplomacy, especially when these governments are acting empathetically toward someone whose challenged conduct was undertaken on behalf of freedom and democracy with nothing personal to gain materially and much to lose.  It was not as if Snowden was disgruntled after being fired from his lucrative joy as a government contract employee. Or even like the CIA retirees who wait until their pensions kick in before breaking with the agency, and writing their

‘show and tell’ stories.

 

Surely, Russia is better situated than Venezuela to harbor Snowden without having to worry about adverse political consequences.  In Russia went ahead and offered Snowden asylum, perhaps the White House would express its frustration by issuing an intemperate statement about Russia’s unfriendly move, but likely leave at that. Doing anything more would be incredibly foolish, but of course that is no assurance that it wouldn’t happen.

 

All along the true challenge to the U.S. Government, the American and world independent media, and to governments and people throughout the world is consider whether such a massive regime of secret unregulated surveillance by the U.S. government in the name of national security is legally, morally, and politically acceptable. Snowden’s individual fate, although properly a matter of the greatest concern, is secondary to the substance of the issues of principle that are present.  In an unusual show of global public spiritedness and sensitivity, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a highly relevant statement: “Snowden’s case has shown the need to protect persons disclosing information on matters that have implications for human rights, as well as the importance of ensuring the rights of privacy. National systems must ensure that there are adequate avenues for individuals disclosing violations to express their concern without fear of reprisal.”

 

Despite the hue and cry associated with this rather indecent and extended effort by the U.S. Government to gain custody of Snowden, it is forgotten that his ‘criminal’ acts have already had some beneficial results:

–opening an overdue national debate in the United States as to the proper balance between surveillance and security;

–creating a global awareness of the extent to which the American surveillance regime has a global reach that threatens confidentiality of foreign governmental activity and the privacy of ordinary persons everywhere;

–encouraging relevant Congressional committees to consider placing limitations on invasions of privacy;

–tightening of the rules and policies relating to Department of Justice interference with journalists via acquisition of phone logs and emails.

 

We will miss the most crucial point of Snowden’s ‘crimes’ if we do not devote our attention to these fundamental political challenges directed at human security, democratic ways of life, and a pluralist world order. To be  distracted by the circus of the Snowden chase any longer is to play along with a shameless geopolitical caper!

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Misreading the Snowden Affair

11 Jul

This post is a revised and modified version of an essay published as an Op/Ed two days ago by Al Jazeera English; it attempt to reflect on the significance of the Snowden disclosures, and why governments did not rebuff the American efforts to take Snowden into custody as an accused criminal by the simple assertion that ‘political crimes‘ should never be the subject of cooperative inter-governmental efforts to achieve the enforcement of criminal law in a foreign country. The world benefits from the safety valve of such sanctuary, as does the country that is seeking to arrest and punish the whistleblower even if most of its leaders and opinion makers do not realize this. So far even the U.S. Government has not insisted that Snowden’s crime is somehow not to be considered ‘a political crime,’ nor could it plausibly make such an argument. For this reason to capture Snowden the United States has relied on its diplomatic clout and geopolitical capacity to impose costs on those who do not comply with its wishes. So far in the Snowden Affair it is small Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, that have risked the ire of the United States by pursuing independent policies with respect to Snowden, and acting correctly from the perspective of law and morality.

 

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            I had thought that there was a clear set of principles that make the frantic American diplomatic pursuit of Edward Snowden as a fugitive from justice a rather empty and futile gesture. As far as I can tell, there is not even a need for asylum, which is normally reserved for someone with reasonable fears that persecution will occur is forced to return to his country of nationality. Every foreign governments should have been prepared to grant Snowden residence status because his alleged criminal acts in the United States were without doubt political crimes.

 

            I had thought it was as straightforward as law can be that any person who has committed a political crime should be exempted from mandatory extradition even if a treaty existed imposed a duty on its parties to hand over individuals accused of serious criminal activity. To be sure, from the perspective of the United States Government, Snowden’s exposure of the PRISM surveillance program was a flagrant violation of the Espionage Act and breach of classification constraints was unlawful. But it was also as self-evidently a political crime as almost any undertaking can be. There was no violence involved or threatened, and no person is harmed by the disclosures.

Quite the contrary, information in the public interest, related to the defense of individual liberties and national sovereign rights was made available, enhancing the prospects for protecting democracy against its many enemies.

 

            What puzzles me is why the refusal to hand Snowden over by expelling him to the United States, which is what Washington has asked Russia to do, raises any kind of serious question beyond wondering how and why the U.S. government officials posed such a request almost in the form of a demand in the first place. The U.S. Government approached Moscow as if they were harboring a common criminal: “We expect the Russian Government to look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden to the United States to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged.” Putin spurned the request, but he might have made his correct stand stronger either by indicating that Snowden was welcome to remain in Russia or by rebuffing such a strongly worded request as inappropriate.

 

            It is also puzzling why governments in Europe did not politely respond to Washington by simply saying that it has long been their firm policy and consistent practice not to collaborate with foreign governments in the pursuit of individuals accused of committing nonviolent political crimes. There are excellent public policy and humanitarian reasons why such ‘criminals’ should not be treated internationally as fugitives from justice. Whistleblowing serves the overall public interest relating to maintain a balance of state and society in democratic polities, and providing sanctuary for those who commit political crimes benefits the public good of a state-centric world order.  

 

            It seems clearly within the domain of reason to believe that the extent of secret surveillance, both conducted by the United States within its own borders and globally, is posing a dangerous threat to the future of democracy, to the freedom, privacy, and the security of individuals, and to the national sovereignty of all states. In these respects, Snowden’s crimes are from a global perspective not crimes at all, but should be viewed as timely and brave contributions to human security.

 

            His disclosures can also be interpreted from within the United States as acts of civil disobedience, that is, deliberate violations of law to call attention to greater wrongs.   It was Snowden’s conscience as a citizen that appears to have led him to act against his normal interests, giving up a successful career and high income as a skilled government contract employee working in the private sector and accepting the pressures and insults that he must have anticipated would follow upon such a frontal challenge to counter-terrorist security policies relied upon by the most powerful country in the world. There is every indication that Snowden knew exactly what he was doing, and why. He deliberately violated the applicable criminal law of the United States in a sensitive area of national security, and not surprisingly has been labeled ‘a traitor’ by politicians and some media opinion writers, and some zealots have even accused him of ‘treason.’ Beyond this, more moderate critics have insisted that unlike Daniel Ellsberg who remained in the country after he released the Pentagon Papers, Snowden does not deserve to be respected as a whistleblower because he did not stay around to face the legal music, subservience to the criminal law system being regarded as the essential expression of good faith by those who claim to be acting for the public good when they defy the law for a supposedly higher good. It should be appreciated that in the post-9/11 world, especially within the United States, there is an almost unlimited willingness of American courts to treat government procedures of surveillance and policies of confidentiality as ‘reasonable’ provided only that a justification is made that such measures are needed to keep American safe and prevent future terrorist incidents. It is true that Snowden is insisting that his balancing of security and freedom is to be preferred over that of the government, including its elected representatives and leaders.

 

            The U.S. Government international pursuit of Snowden seems to  contradict its own long standing practice of refusing to give up to foreign governments those wanted for political crimes, including in some instances even shielding persons charged with terrorist activity if the target country is viewed as an enemy state. The most notorious example of such a pattern involves Luis Posada Carrilles, an exile from Cuba with a long record of involvement in anti-Castro terrorist activity and state terrorism. Carrilles, among other violent acts, is alleged to have been centrally involved with a plot to blow up a Cuban passenger plane in 1976 that killed all 73 persons on board. He has been living for decades without legal difficulties in Florida. This is not meant to show the extremes to which the political crimes doctrine is carried. Rather it illustrates carrying this exemption from criminal accountability much too far, and raises the opposite problem from that associated with the affair of Snowden.

 

            The shameful behavior of several European governments, succumbing to American pressure, cannot be overlooked, and suggests the extent to which law and morality can be bent by the exertion of geopolitical leverage. It is notable that such well established governments of France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy caved in, denying overflight rights to the plane carrying Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, apparently hoping to persuade a friendly government to seize Snowden wherever the plane eventually landed, and then turn him over to American authorities if he were on board who would have him transported back to the United States to face charges. It should hardly be surprising that such diplomatic hard ball at Bolivia’s expense angered several Latin American countries, justifiably sensitive to such a display of U.S. willingness to throw its weight around in a manner humiliating to a head of state in a Latin American country. It is unimaginable that the United States would tolerate such behavior if its president were to be denied normal overflight rights because there was believed to be on board an Iranian who had just revealed some state secrets about Iran’s nuclear program because he was fearful that the development of nuclear weapons by Iran would lead to war. Undoubtedly this effort to divert the Bolivian presidential plane was an anguishing reminder to Latin America that the imperial mentality responsible for the Monroe Doctrine and ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the Western Hemisphere was not entirely a thing of the past.

 

            It is not known why Snowden himself shifted the context from the exemption of political crimes to a request for asylum, which presupposes a justifiable fear of persecution of returned to the country of nationality. It may be that he was not advised about the availability of political crimes exception to extradition or that he was informed by Russia and other governments that he would not welcome to remain in their country, perhaps because of seeking to avoid diplomatic difficulties with the United States. As it was, the U.S. officials and influential media commentators treated the refusal of Russia, China, and Hong Kong to hand Snowden over as an unfriendly, if not hostile, act. Secretary of State Kerry somewhat bizarrely reminded Russia of their recent cooperation in relation to the Boston Marathon terrorist case, as if this somehow created an obligation on Russia’s part to behave in a similar way with respect to Snowden. What make this bizarre is the seeming equivalence struck between the Boston murderers and Snowden.

 

            It is against such a background that Nicolás Maduro, President of Venezuela, offered Snowden asylum on July 5th, the national holiday celebrating independence in his country. The offer of asylum to Snowden on such an occasion was resonant with symbolism relating to a reminder to Washington that time have indeed changed, and even small Latin American countries will define their own national interests and shape public policy on the basis of Venezuelan values. Snowden has reportedly accepted the offer, but there is no indication how he will make sure that his trip from Shermetyevo International Airport in Moscow to Caracas is not interrupted on route in a way that allows the United States to take him into custody.

 

            There is another question lurking in the background. Will Venezuela be now made to pay for doing the right thing? And what of Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador that each indicated sympathy with Snowden’s request for asylum? There has been speculation that in the post-Chavez era Maduro has been seeking to normalize relations with the United States, and that this goal might now be put on indefinite hold. And what about Hong Kong, China, and Russia that spurned American efforts to have Snowden expelled to the United States after his passport was cancelled? How far will the U.S. Government push this anti-leak diplomacy?

 

            I suppose that this attack of ‘surveillance panic’ is a symptom of the larger importance being attached by Washington to cyber security, and worries about disabling attacks directed at information networks by way of hacking and debilitating viruses. Even granting this, to go after Snowden in this way is more than panic, it suggests one more example of American exceptionalism that causes anger and resentment throughout the world—in effect, the United States is insisting that we expect from others far more than we are prepared to give. It is especially striking that among Snowden’s disclosures are confirmations of the earlier rumors that the United States and Israel had collaborate to develop the computer worm or virus, Stuxnet, that had been used in 2010 to disrupt operations in Iran’s nuclear facilities. As with the use of drones around the world, the blowback risks seem once more ignored as America flexes its geopolitical muscles without regard for the constraints of international law, the logic of reciprocity, and the values of a free society.

 

            Reciprocity is the indispensable foundation of effective international law, and it is here that the Snowden Affair seems particularly disturbing. If a Chinese Snowden was to make comparable revelations that violated Chinese criminal law there would not be a chance in a million that the United States would return such an individual to China, and wouldn’t Washington be outraged if China used its leverage to persuade governments to divert a plane suspected of carrying the person they were seeking to prosecute, especially if it were a plane known to be carrying the president of a sovereign state?

 

           

            Why should it be deemed ‘unfriendly’ to offer sanctuary to Snowden as European countries, and even China and Russia, seemed to believe? Why were even the Latin American countries seemingly only led to act when the Bolivian president was denied normal international comity in international airspace as head of a sovereign state, and this seemed like an affront that called for a response? Giving sanctuary to political crimes helps makes the world safe for political dissent and pluralism, and offers a shield against the autocratic security state. It should be expected as a dimension of a commitment to human rights and democracy. It is admirable that Venezuela, whatever its reasons, stepped forward to offer Snowden asylum, which was certainly deserved from the perspective of refugee law, considering the vindictive and punitive approach taken toward such other recent ‘leakers’ as Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.

 

            What may be most regrettable in this yet unfinished drama is the American refusal to engage in self-scrutiny, to wonder whether surveillance and secrecy are not being abused, a gross over-reaction to 9/11 and extremist threats, that alters the balance between state and society in an anti-democratic manner, as well as treats the entire world as if falls within the ‘territorial’ domain of U.S. national security. Such a worldview is decidedly imperial as it has no intention of honoring reciprocal claims made by others, and implicitly places the United States above the law by allowing it to seize such a fugitive from justice wherever in the world he might be found, thereby manipulating cooperative international criminal law enforcement to suit its own particular priorities.

 

            Instead of seeking to prosecute and punish Snowden, the healthy national response would be to consider placing stronger limits on governmental surveillance and extraterritorial security claims, and certainly to open such a debate. It is crucial that American citizens not be fooled by the politics of deflection by which the government and a pliant media avoid the message of disclosure and obsess about the messenger who discloses. It has never been more important for Americans and others to discuss the substantive concerns that prompted Snowden to take such a hazardous course. And yet the energy of the country has been almost exclusively devoted up to now to the purported need to punish this individual of conscience who chose courageously to endure the predictable fury of a state when some of its most unseemly secrets were shared with the public. Snowden gave us as planetary citizens this incredible opportunity and responsibility to evaluate the acceptability of these state secrets, which if not taken, might fasten forever the tentacles of the security state upon an increasingly nominal and pliant body politic. 

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