Espionage… treason… decoy plane tickets… icy diplomacy from the Motherland! The events surrounding the Edward Snowden controversy have all the makings of a blockbuster spy thriller. Yet, as easy as it may be to get caught up in the drama of Snowden’s high-octane quest for asylum, it is important to take a step back and consider how his struggle has shed light onto the relationship between the rights of the individual and the security of the Nation in this modern globalized age.
On Monday, Snowden released a statement via the infamous WikiLeaks site. In the midst of thanking his supporters and calling out the hypocrisy of the United States, he made it a point to frame his martyrdom within the context of Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, like any self-(dis)respecting law student, I started here with the source law:
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions generally arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
People can say what they will about the practical reach of the United Nations’ jurisdiction, and lawyers could spend countless billable hours arguing whether or not Snowden’s release of classified information should ultimately be deemed a “political crime.” Yet despite any legal qualms about Snowden’s approach in evoking the UN, it is clear that he is trying to engender support by using global standards to cast himself as a cyber crusader against the tyrannical force of the United States.
However, one of the biggest reasons that this affair has generated so much attention is that both sides have some very compelling arguments. On Friday, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela announced that he would grant Snowden asylum, remarking “[w]ho is the guilty one? A young man…who denounces war plans, or the U.S. government which launches bombs and arms the terrorist Syrian opposition against the people and legitimate President Bashar al-Assad? Who is the terrorist? Who is the global delinquent?” When you consider the nature of the activity described in Snowden’s disclosures, it is hard to muster up much sympathy for the United States. It is not really too far a stretch to then cast Snowden as this cyber crusader.
Yet, even though Snowden’s actions have this undeniable political bent, it is clear that there are some criminal consequences to what he did. Snowden breached the sacrosanct terms of secrecy re: his employment with the CIA and NSA. Politics aside, he compromised the efficacy of our government and jeopardized our safety. It does not seem that unreasonable for him to have to answer for his actions within the American justice system.
Having just celebrated Independence Day, I have to say that I feel very conflicted. How can a nation built on the principles of individual rights and freedom be involved in such nefarious mass surveillance of its own citizens? (This is the part of me that lit a sparkler in Snowden’s honor on Thursday night.) But on the other hand, our country’s leadership and historic commitment to these principles, no matter how convoluted, is the exact reason why I can sit here and write this post without fear of retributive punishment in the first place. So as long as the endgame is the same, does it really matter if the road to preserving my rights is cratered by unsightly potholes along the way?
UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, personally remarked on Tuesday in Reykjavik that “[t]he Snowden case is something I consider to be misuse.” Misuse. This implies that there is (theoretically) a proper time and place for people like Snowden to step up and fulfill a greater public duty by keeping the masses informed. Granted, the subjectivity implied by Ban Ki-Moon’s statement invites a slew of other uncomfortable questions. Who is to decide what we need to know when and why? Who is Snowden to put on the red cape and save us all through this enlightenment? Nevertheless, Ban Ki-Moon does a good a job at articulating the competing needs for both an effective and accountable government.
We all have our opinions about whether or not Snowden’s actions were right or justified. My only question is this: what did he end up accomplishing with all of this? Maybe it is too early to tell, but I do not see that anything has changed. We are not any closer to world peace or transparency. In fact, we are probably further away than before. Our country is not any more committed to individual liberties; the American people are just angrier. Snowden claims to have acted for our benefit. Well Mr. Snowden, thank you for looking out for us, but was it really worth it?