Would the U.S. Grant Asylum to a Man Who Exposed Russia's Spying?

A thought experiment illustrating the strangeness of expecting Edward Snowden to be returned to us.
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On The Tonight Show Tuesday, President Obama complained about Russia's decision to grant political asylum to Edward Snowden. "There have been times," he said, "where they slip back into Cold War thinking."

Last week, Andrew Sullivan expressed his own displeasure. "Vladimir Putin's decision to poke the United States firmly in the eye over the Edward Snowden case requires a proportionate response," he wrote. "His belief that US-Russian relations can go on unmolested by this provocation needs to be disproven. No sincere partner in the world community would seize this opportunity to leverage world opinion against a flawed NSA spying program that looks in political danger in the Congress already. It's preposterous to see this as anything but a piece of geo-political theater."

To me, the U.S. would be foolish to let the Edward Snowden controversy affect its relationship with a nuclear power or to prioritize Snowden when so many more important issues are at stake.

But I raise Obama's statement and Sullivan's post for a different reason.

Imagine that an employee of a secretive surveillance agency in Russia or China landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, somehow called a press conference, and revealed that the leaders of his country were secretly gathering up the private data of all Russians or Chinese in previously unknown ways, and that they were also spying on many Americans.

What would be the right thing to do in that situation? Should Obama return the leaker to Russia or China to face charges of revealing classified information and likely spend the rest of his life in prison? Or would the demands of justice and morality be better served by granting political asylum?

I don't suppose Obama will respond, but I'm curious to know what Sullivan would like to see done in that hypothetical. Note that I have nowhere said the U.S., Russia, and China are equivalent. Personally, I'd want to grant the Russian or Chinese man asylum and thank him for his courage. Vladimir Putin's motives are quite different. But it's Snowden's fate that concerns me. His act exposed something that should never exist, whether in a democracy or an autocracy: a system of secret, hard to challenge laws and massive intrusions on the privacy of innocents. In a pre-Snowden world, we'd have celebrated such an act were it undertaken by a resident of any other country, and most Americans wouldn't have thought their country capable of such injustice. Learning otherwise is the real reason Russia's temporary grant of asylum stings so much.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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