Legendary leaker Edward Snowden is in the horns of a dilemma, and is relying on a team of lawyers from several countries to extricate him from the delicate, dangerous situation he finds himself in. The whistleblower, ensconced in Russia since 2013, would like to return to the US to face the music if he can be assured of a fair trial.
The symphony of charges against him, and the obstacles to be overcome to clear the way for such a return are daunting given the extent of his revelations, and how the whole episode played out. As it stands, he has run afoul of several provisions of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the mood in US legal circles is to hold him to account for treason. The twists and turns of the Snowden saga have been well chronicled, and I have written extensively on the topic in this space in the last eighteen months.
In many circles, Snowden’s actions are perceived as heroic for alerting the world to surveillance abuses by the US government in general, and the NSA in particular. To others he is viewed as a traitor who not only revealed information about spying on citizens but also collaborated with foreign governments to shed light on US intelligence gathering methods.
As time has elapsed since his disclosures, there seems to be less sympathy in America for his actions. That he fled to a country as notorious and noxious to US interests as Russia further incenses and motivates law enforcement authorities in the US. Many doubt that he can be accorded a fair trial in the US, and the passage of time has not been kind to Snowden in the court of public opinion here in the US.
The dilemma arises because, according to a US legal adviser to Snowden,
“The laws under which Snowden is charged don’t distinguish between sharing information with the press in the public interest, and selling secrets to a foreign enemy.”
The comments were made a year ago by the ACLU lawyer, Ben Wizner to the Guardian, but succinctly sum up the crux of the quandary. More broadly, is the justice system in the US likely to take kindly to the spectre of its spy apparatus’ linen being laundered in public before the world? Should it even broach the topic of Snowden’s actions, opening up a historic global debate which may ultimately strengthen free societies? This remains to be seen, but don’t hold your collective breaths.
Snowden, a North Carolina native has expressed a desire to return to the US in the past, but he cannot practically do so while under the oppressive yolk of Espionage Act felonies which would preclude him from making his defense that his actions served the common good. The felonies include theft, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person. Additionally, he could face further charges for each document that has been published. In this scenario, “The exposure that he faces is virtually unlimited under this,” Wisner said last year.
Last week General David Petraeus, the former commander of the Iraq and Afghanistan war effort and director of the CIA, pleaded guilty to one count of willfully removing classified documents, after admitting that he revealed classified information to his lover. He was fined $40,000 and sentenced to two years’ probation.
Petraeus had friends in high places, most notably President Obama who appointed him. On the other hand, Snowden has no such political cover, and the Obama administration has been privately seething and sharpening the knife in anticipation of using it against Snowden at the optimal time. Publicly, however, the US department of Justice remains outwardly dispassionate, encouraging Snowden to return to the US to face the charges as he will be accorded due process protections.
The hope is that a deal can be struck which will placate all concerned and this nasty episode can be concluded. The bet here is that something is arranged which won’t prove embarrassing or detrimental to the government before the 2016 presidential campaign gets into full swing. The fear is that if something doesn’t break soon, rather than risk muddying the waters during the presidential campaign with information that could be awkward for either party’s standard-bearer, the matter of Edward Snowden’s repatriation to the US will be put on the back-burner until afterward. Maybe the new administration will be more conciliatory.