Jacob Heilbrunn

From Russia With Love: Snowden Gets Asylum

With its decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum, Russia is once again demonstrating its independence from America and handing a big victory to WikiLeaks. The Obama administration has gone into overdrive to attempt to capture Snowden, promising Moscow that Snowden would neither be tortured nor subjected to the death penalty if he is returned. But in the wake of the treatment of Bradley Manning, who was apparently subjected to prolonged isolation and other maltreatment, those promises are necessary but hardly sufficient. America's track record when it comes to dealing with dissent—for that is what Snowden represents—is a parlous one, from the incarceration of Eugene Debs during World War I to the latest batch of whistleblowers. So Moscow has blown a giant raspberry at President Obama.

The problem is really of his own making. The appropriate response to Snowden would have been to promise him immunity from prosecution and allow him to return to America, where he could have testified to Congress. From a practical standpoint, the administration would have been better off with Snowden in America rather than back in Russia, where he can dribble out embarrassing information. Everything that Snowden has said appears to be accurate. The latest revelation concerns a computer program called XKeyscore that is one more step towards the omnicompetent state. It permits government officials to snoop wherever and whenever they please, to trawl through your internet activities, chats, emails, and so on. The indispensable James Bamford, writing in the New York Review of Books, reports that "with the arrival of the Obama administration, the NSA's powers continued to expand at the same time that administration officials and the NSA continued to deceive the American public on the extent of the spying."

So far, Snowden is on a roll. The Washington Post notes today that "Obama administration officials faced deepening political skepticism Wednesday about a far-reaching counterterrorism program that collects millions of Americans' phone records, even as they released newly declassified documents in an attempt to spotlight privacy safeguards." Indeed they do. Apart from the privacy questions, there is also the one of practicality, as Senate Judiciary Committee head Patrick Leahy made abundatly clear in questioning NSA officials yesterday. How effective are these programs? Do they testify more to bureaucratic aggrandizement than common sense? What confidence does anyone have that the NSA is able to use this massive amount of information in a clear and coherent fashion that promotes American national security? Little of this would be occurring absent Snowden's release of documents about the NSA's activities. Instead, the Obama administration would continue stealthily to assemble information about the activities of American citizens.

What will become of Snowden? He can go live in a dacha outside Moscow and surf the internet to his heart's content. He could even live the life of an Oblomov, putting off everything until another day. But his father says he is an avid reader and he could employ himself learning Russian and steeping himself in the classics, as the New York Times suggests—"His Russian lawyer earlier this week left him a shopping bag with books by Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Nikolai Karamzin to help him learn about Russian reality." In the meantime, his father's lawyer Bruce Fein might be able to reach an accommodation with the Obama administration that would allow Snowden to return to America without facing draconian punishment for his actions. The frenzied hunt for Snowden is itself further evidence of the misplaced priorities of the American intelligence services.

Image: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. CC BY 2.0.