Whistleblower Edward Snowden has finally been granted asylum by a country that he’s actually able to travel to. Regardless of whether asylum in Russia is only temporary, this is precisely the situation that the U.S. government has been trying to avoid ever since Snowden’s identity became known on June 9th. According to the State Department, “Mr. Snowden is not a human rights activist, he’s not a dissident, he’s been accused of leaking classified information, has been charged with three very serious felony counts, and must be, should be, returned to the United States to face a free and fair trial as soon as possible.”
When confronted with accusations that the extreme measures taken by the Obama administration to try to capture Snowden are a form of political persecution, the State Department offers contradictory rebuttals, first saying, “he would be tried as any U.S. citizen would be, and he remains a U.S. citizen.” and then stating, “I wouldn’t want to compare [Snowden’s] case to any other case in the U.S. or elsewhere.” This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the incoherent public statements made by U.S. government officials trying to justify their pursuit of Snowden.
Many countries have received threats or suffered blowback for even considering Snowden’s asylum request. Indeed, in perhaps one of the more dramatic moments so far in the Snowden saga, Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, had his plane rerouted and searched based on an unfounded suspicion that Snowden was on board. Given that Snowden seems to have found himself a stable living situation - at least for now - let’s step back for a moment and review some of the actions and statements of the Obama administration and members of the U.S. congress with regard to Snowden. They reveal how important this case is to the government, and also some of the contradictions that have emerged in the process:
- Various parts of the U.S. government were involved in trying to win China’s cooperation with efforts to capture Snowden, and after he left for Russia strong words were used to illustrate U.S. frustration with China. White House spokesperson Jay Carney said on June 24:
I think it’s fair to say that this is a setback in the effort by the Chinese to help develop mutual trust. And I think, as we’ve said with regards to the failure by Hong Kong to provisionally arrest Mr. Snowden, that we don’t buy suggestions that the Chinese weren’t a part of -- that this was just a logistical or technical issue in Hong Kong alone. So we do believe it’s a setback.
While censuring China, he also tried to build a case for why Russia should cooperate:
I can note, as I have, that we have worked cooperatively with the Russians in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and have a fairly substantial history of law enforcement cooperation with Russia as a backdrop to this discussion. But I wouldn’t want to characterize communications at this point or speculate about outcomes. This is clearly fluid and we’re monitoring --
Although it is difficult to be certain since other bilateral meetings were not open to the public, it seems like this tough rhetoric was not toned down during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
- In response to threats from the members in the U.S. congress, including Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI) who is the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, Ecuador indicated that it was willing to give up trade preferences granted by the United States, thereby taking away a U.S. bargaining chip. Fernando Alvarado, Ecuador’s Minister of Communications, announced that his country “renounces, unilaterally and irrevocably, [Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act—ATPDEA] trade preferences.” When asked about whether these trade preferences were something that the U.S. government supported, State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell repeated the argument that Snowden was wanted in the U.S.:
What would not be a good thing is them [Ecuador] granting Mr. Snowden asylum. That would have grave difficulties for our bilateral relationship. That would cause there to be grave difficulties in our bilateral relationship. And so taking the lens back a little bit, if they take that step that would have very negative repercussions. [Emphasis added.]
While indicating that Ecuador did not actually have the authority to end the trade preferences, he also avoided acknowledging that the ATPDEA was put in place publicly as a U.S. counternarcotics strategy, but was instead being used by politicians and analysts as a means of political leverage to influence Ecuador in its deliberation over whether to grant Snowden asylum. Spokesperson Ventrell said:
QUESTION: I mean, Matt was asking: What are you going to do? You’re going to force it on them if they can’t withdraw bilaterally from it? And in fact, Correa – President Correa said himself today, quoting that these preferential rights in exchange for the cooperation in the war on drugs have become, quote, “a new instrument of blackmail.” Would you like to respond to that on behalf of the U.S. Government?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, no, we reject that characterization, and again, where we can have a positive economic relationship, that’s a good thing. But I’m just not going to characterize the reaction.
QUESTION: So if they can’t withdraw unilaterally from it, what’s the next step? I mean, do they just carry on anyway? I mean, is this an empty gesture, I suppose, is what I’m asking on the part of Quito?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I’d just characterize it as their unilateral trade provisions that provide a benefit to certain Ecuadorian products. Whether they’re renewed or not is a prerogative of the U.S. Congress. I mean, I can’t – I just have nothing more for you on it.
- When asked about Snowden on June 27th, President Obama downplayed his importance, saying:
I have not called President Xi personally or President Putin personally. And the reason is because, number one, I shouldn't have to. This is something that routinely is dealt with between law enforcement officials in various countries. And this is not exceptional from a legal perspective.
Number two, we've got a whole lot of business that we do with China and Russia. And I'm not going to have one case of a suspect who we're trying to extradite suddenly being elevated to the point where I've got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues simply to get a guy extradited, so that he can face the Justice system here in the United States.
But one last thing, because you asked a final question -- no, I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.
- On June 28, the day after Obama said that negotiating with foreign presidents over Snowden was not worth his time, Vice President Joe Biden called President Rafael Correa of Ecuador to urge him to not grant asylum to Snowden. The same day, the State Department struggled to explain how the actions of the Obama Administration could be conceived as anything but threats to other nations:
QUESTION: Well, I mean, there’s kind of a mixed message that comes out of here, because on the one hand you’re saying, “We don’t want this to affect, and it’s really too bad if it does,” and yet there really are not only implied threats, but pretty direct threats. Your phrasing-g yesterday was pretty direct. So --
MR. VENTRELL: It was.
QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.) Well, then, explain why so direct, why threats? Because this is being interpreted as the U.S., of course, bullying the rest of the world.
MR. VENTRELL: No, I wouldn’t say that at all. The point is just that we’re making a consistent point to any government that might take him as a final destination that this is somebody wanted on serious felony charges and we’d like him returned to the United States. And so we’ve had law enforcement cooperation and other types of cooperation with some of these countries, including Ecuador. We’d like to see that continue, but clearly detrimental if that cooperation isn’t received. So we’re talking about somebody charged with very serious crimes, so we’ll continue to make that case. We’ve been consistent.
QUESTION: Well, is that a statement of fact or a threat?
MR. VENTRELL: No, I would say that these are statements of fact. We want this based – built on cooperation. It would be very concerning if that cooperation isn’t there. So I wouldn’t call it a threat. I’d say that we’re making the same points in public that we’re making in private, that this is a serious – somebody accused of serious crimes who we want returned.
- Just a few days later, the Bolivian President’s plane was denied access to the airspace of France and Spain, forcing it to land in Austria as a result of false suspicions that Edward Snowden was on board. When asked, the State Department repeated their message about Snowden’s felony charges, but they refused to deny that they asked European countries to stop the plane:
QUESTION: But Jen, were you in communication with those countries or alerted to the fact that they would be either – well, not allowing a certain plane to land – the President’s plane?
MS. PSAKI: We have been in contact with a range of countries across the world who had any chance of having Mr. Snowden land or even transit through their countries, but I’m not going to outline when those were or what those countries have been.
QUESTION: Jen --
QUESTION: Why isn’t it unseemly for any country to essentially deny a head of state safe passage through its airspace? Why – regardless of whether Snowden was on that plane, why isn’t that in and of itself patently offensive?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Roz, I would point you to those specific countries to answer that question.
In a subsequent OAS gathering, the U.S. representative also refused to condemn the incident, citing facts that were “unclear and subject to conflicting reports” and also technical arguments, saying that it is “unhelpful and inappropriate for the OAS” to comment on an issue that the U.S. deemed a “bilateral matter between Bolivia and the countries concerned.” Canada was the only other member to not join the consensus, citing exactly same reasons.
- On July 8, the State Department reacted to news that Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela had offered Snowden asylum after a meeting to discuss the incident involving President Morales’ plane. In what has become a pattern whenever other nations failed to cooperate over Snowden, the Obama administration immediately made statements through the State Department that they were reexamining those bilateral relationships. In particular, they indicated that the good will generated by the meeting between Secretary Kerry and Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Elías Jaua was going to be impacted.
- Snowden met with human rights groups on July 12 in the Sheremetyevo airport where he accepted all asylum offers that had been made but also spoke out about his lack of access to safe-passage to those countries offering asylum. The State Department lashed out at Russian authorities that might have helped arrange the meeting, characterizing it as a “propaganda platform.” When challenged by the press corps to explain this attack on a U.S. citizen’s right to free speech and assembly, the State Department spokesperson said: “this is an individual, as we all know, who has been accused of felony crimes in the United States.” Reporter Matt Lee put it best:
He remains a U.S. citizen, and he enjoys certain rights as a U.S. citizen. One of those rights, from your point of view, is that he has the right to come back and face trial for the crimes he’s committed. But the rights that you’re not talking about are his right to free speech, his right to talk with whoever he wants to, freedom to assemble. I don’t understand why those rights are – why you ignore those and simply say that he has – that he’s welcome to come back to the United States to exercise his right to be tried by a jury of his peers. Why is that the only right that he gets, according to this Administration?
- Most recently, as Russian authorities granted Snowden a one year temporary asylum, the U.S. responded by indicating they were reconsidering some areas of the bilateral relationship with Russia. White House spokesperson Jay Carney said:
The Russian Federal Migration Service has confirmed publicly that they have issued Mr. Snowden temporary asylum for one year and allowed him to leave the airport. We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful requests in public and in private to have Mr. Snowden expelled to the United States to face the charges against him.
Mr. Snowden is not a whistleblower. He is accused of leaking classified information and has been charged with three felony counts, and he should be returned to the United States as soon as possible where he will be accorded full due process and protections.
Asked about this, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf indicated that the rift is all to do with Snowden:
QUESTION: … Is it fair to conclude that your reevaluation of the utility of a summit with President Putin is directly in response to this one event, or is it part of a wider set of issues including that arms control talks don’t appear to be going very far with the Russians?
MS. HARF: I would say that it is directly related to this very disappointing event, yes.
While the messages from the White House and State Department were somewhat measured, avoiding assigning particular intentionality for example, others in congress were not so cautious:
Sen. John McCain called on the U.S. to "fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin's Russia" while Sen. Lindsey Graham called on the U.S. to expand NATO membership to Georgia and complete a controversial missile defense shield in Europe.