On Eric Snowden

The instantaneous rise to fame of an obscure US security contractor named Eric Snowden is a tale full of sound and fury, but signifying much indeed. It’s a gripping story, but frankly, one that–so long as he remains alive and unmolested–is at the very least more than a little funny. Eric Snowden made newspaper headlines around the world for having revealed the extent of a secret surveillance program carried out by the US government on both Americans and others around the world. The ostensible aim of the program was to to forestall terrorist attacks against the US.

As I write this, Mr. Snowden has already escaped from Hong Kong to Russia, and is said to be waiting to depart– notwithstanding the fact that his passport has been revoked–for Ecuador via a third country, either Cuba or Venezuela.

The choice of Ecuador is interesting because the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, has been granted asylum by that country, and is holed up in its embassy in London.

I dislike Assange, and am quite prepared to believe that he should be extradited to Sweden to face charges involving sexual improprieties. Furthermore, since Wikileaks has basically revealed classified data from only the US and its allies to the rest of the world, including strong powers that are much less ethical than the US, I believe that Mr. Assange is, essentially, one of the “bad guys,”–or at the very least one of their enablers–and I would probably like to see him incarcerated.

Mr. Snowden is different. I do not believe he has put US interests at risk by opening up about Prism. I do believe that he acted with integrity in making his choice to reveal secrets he had access to about this top-secret program that represents a significant level of intrusiveness on the part of the US government. So in my books, even if he is wrong on the merits of the case itself, he is a moral hero for doing the right thing and following his conscience. But I believe that he is likely in fact right in drawing attention to secret and unprecedented government surveillance.

And here’s where the story gets funny. Mr. Snowden has been labeled a “traitor” by a whole host of hawkish Republicans who have vowed to have him pursued to the ends of the earth. The huffing and puffing from these close-minded, fat, self-righteous men (men of the same political party that is regularly represented by on-the-record misogynists), has to be worth something for comedic value. Mr. Snowden, on the other hand, says that to be called a “traitor” by such men is the highest honour an American can receive–a witty retort, though one I hope he doesn’t really make in all sincerity.

The story gets even funnier because Mr. Snowden chose to publicize his news from Hong Kong, itself controlled by China–a country that has taken espionage on its own citizens and those of other countries to unprecedented heights. Plainly, Mr. Snowden was an extremely awkward embarrassment for China, which is regularly criticized by the US for stealing state and corporate secrets from America. So I never expected China to return Mr. Snowden to the US. By the same token, China wouldn’t want him to remain in China either; in other words, his “escape” from Hong Kong was a fait accompli. How it happened was funny, though: the US made its official request for his extradition, and received this response:

As the [Hong Kong] government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.

And so Mr. Snowden escaped–to Russia of all places, where Vladimir Putin couldn’t care less about restricting his movements. And now a Democrat joins the huffing and puffing–no less than Senator Charles Schumer:

The bottom line is very simple: allies are supposed to treat each other in decent ways, and Putin always seems almost eager to put a finger in the eye of the United States, whether it is Syria, Iran and now of course with Snowden. That’s not how allies should treat each other and I think it will have serious consequences for the United States-Russia relationship.

I think that’s grossly unfair. First of all, Russia is hardly a US ally. Washington has been encouraging, first with moral and intelligence support, and now with weapons, those opposed to the Assad regime in Syria, a staunch ally of Russia and one of its best customers–and host to its only Mediterranean base–and the US government accepts the Russians to take this lying down? The thought that Assad may fall and be replaced by jihadis and terrorists seems not to bother people like Schumer one bit. I have no love at all for Assad, but this war could have been a lot less bloody if the opposition in Syria had not been encouraged from the beginning by the US and its allies to press for his ouster. For once Sarah Palin, of all people, was on the right track when she said “let Allah sort it out.”

I don’t think any country that harbours Snowden is any more obligated to return him to the US than the US is required to repatriate refugees from China. The fact that a Canadian citizen can be extradited from Canada to the US for the crime of mailing marijuana seeds into the US is a fact that rankles me a good deal, and I am staunchly anti-marijuana. It’s the principle: he was Canadian, on Canadian soil, and mailed something that was neither explosive nor poisonous to the US. It’s up to the US border personnel to confiscate that, and, if possible, try to sue him in Canadian courts for wasting their time, but to ask for his extradition? (It’s even more ironic given that several US states now have liberalized marijuana laws, making Canada look downright conservative.)

Countries around the world are fed up with Washington’s double-standards and bullying. Particularly in the matter of Syria, I tend to be on the Russian side, which is not somewhere I ordinarily find myself. The Russians have been advocating for dialogue, and the sabre-rattling US has been saying “all options are on the table,” “there’s a red-line we won’t allow to be crossed,” etc. Meanwhile, we may remain skeptical after what passed for US and British intelligence that supposedly found WMD in Iraq turned out to be based on a plagiarized paper that was itself not factual. That was an enormous blow to US credibility, and war was waged based on it.

So Snowden is a moral problem for the government of the Unites States, an embarrassing headache for the leadership of China, and an enjoyable joke for Putin’s Russia. For my part, I wish Snowden well, and I hope he can live out his courageous life safely and in comfort. But let’s put to rest this business of him being a “traitor” once and for all (or at least until something quite incriminating turns up); at this point, it looks more like it is the United States’ government that is the traitor–to its own historic ideals.

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