Just weeks after leaking the story that the NSA has been collecting phone records and the internet activity of American citizens, it appears that Edward Snowden will not be seeking permanent asylum in China. Yesterday, multiple news agencies reported that Snowden was on his way to Moscow, where he will apparently wait for Ecuador to grant him asylum. Earlier reports stated that he might be fleeing to Cuba, but it looks like he never boarded the flight that was supposed to take him there.
That’s right, the man who went on the record saying that he was concerned with the direction our government was headed in regard to freedom of speech and privacy has turned to China and Russia for protection. I guess he didn’t hear about the Chinese government upping its own surveillance program in Tibet, or that Russian President Vladimir Putin had an entire band thrown in prison for voicing their opinions on Putin’s Russia, or any number of human rights violations both countries have been accused of committing in the recent past. And he was probably too busy to notice that Ecuador has followed in Venezuela’s footsteps as far as its policy towards America.
Snowden probably fled China because of an extradition treaty we have with them, figuring that sooner or later he would be turned over to the American government and forced to answer for his actions. It was probably a smart move in this regard since we don’t have an extradition treaty with Russia. On top of that, our well-documented, strained relations with Putin’s administration make it even less likely that the Russians would ship him back to the U.S. So why would he go to Ecuador? Why not stay in Russia? After all, the United States accounts for roughly 45% of Ecuador’s trade and they could experience a sharp economic decline if the U.S. decided to retaliate against them for harboring Snowden.
It might have something to do with the fact that the American government has already made a serious push toward convincing Russia to turn him over. The media reported yesterday that the government had filed to revoke Snowden’s passport, which would presumably strand him in Russia for the immediate future. And like I said before, Ecuador tends to take Venezuela’s stance on foreign relations with the U.S. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is known for making strong statements against America, holding frequent rallies against U.S. “imperialism.” So even if President Obama were to threaten economic sanctions, it doesn’t seem likely that Correa would cave.
It’s also worth noting that Snowden has reportedly received assistance from Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame. Assange calls Snowden “a hero” and claims that he is healthy and safe in an undisclosed location. Assange himself has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, another valid reason for Snowden to seek asylum in that country. For one, he knows he has at least one ally with ties to the Ecuadorian government. Second, the Ecuadorian government has harbored Assange for nearly a year, protecting him from charges similar to those Snowden would face in the U.S. The precedent set by the Ecuadorian government has to be reassuring for Snowden.
Knowing this, it seems impossible not to question Snowden’s motives at this point. That’s not to say that he was wrong for bringing this to light. This story is definitely concerning and it’s provoked quite a range of responses from the public, and I could argue for both sides all day. Regardless, it seems hypocritical for a self-proclaimed champion of free speech that claims to want to protect the rights of American citizens to turn to two countries known for censorship and a country that regularly voices anti-American sentiments. I’m sure he has his reasons; we just don’t know what they are yet. There’s still speculation that he has deals with foreign governments to sell information about our national security. This seems plausible since he obviously has access to massive amounts of damning reports and other documents. It could also be as simple as Snowden not wanting to spend the rest of his life behind bars, or worse. He reportedly pleaded with the Ecuadorian government that he wouldn’t get a fair trial in the U.S. Either way, it looks like the government’s chances at having a crack at him in a court of law are shrinking at a rapid pace. Luckily, Snowden hasn’t shied away from the spotlight since he made international headlines. We might have more answers soon, but for now we’re still playing the waiting game.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research