Edward Snowden is still stuck in Russia more than two years after revealing that the U.S. government engaged in mass surveillance on tens of millions of innocent Americans. If he returns to the United States he still faces the prospect of prison, unlike national-security officials who tortured or violated the law by secretly spying on their countrymen, or who have themselves leaked highly classified national-security information. President Obama shows no sign of granting him clemency to acknowledge the public service that he performed and the civil-liberties violations he exposed.
Snowden may, however, have a future as a free man in Europe.
On Thursday, the European Parliament voted 285 to 281 to call on EU member states “to drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden, grant him protection and consequently prevent extradition or rendition by third parties, in recognition of his status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender.”
The vote is not binding on any particular member state, all of which have extradition treaties with the United States. But it suggests that there is a measure of popular and elite support for the mass-surveillance truth-teller that would be a prerequisite were a European state to defy U.S. pressure and grant Snowden political asylum. “This is not a blow against the US Government, but an open hand extended by friends,” Snowden said in a statement on Twitter. “It is a chance to move forward.”
Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told The New York Times that Snowden faces felony charges and “should be returned to the U.S. as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process.” The felony in question, the Espionage Act, was one of the laws passed in 1917 amid the civil-liberties abrogations of World War I. Snowden’s lawyers have noted that he would be forbidden from arguing at trial that he acted in the public interest when passing the truth about the NSA to Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Barton Gellman. His detractors note that he passed on an unknown quantity of other secrets too, and that it’s possible that foreign spy agencies have seen them as a result.
Last year, in an article urging the Obama administration to grant Snowden clemency, I argued that leaks should go unpunished when satisfying a number of criteria that his met:
- When the leak reveals lawbreaking by the U.S. government
- When the leak reveals behavior deemed unconstitutional by multiple federal judges
- When a presidential panel that reviews the leaked information recommends significant reforms
- When the leak inspires multiple pieces of reform legislation in Congress
- When the leak reveals that a high-ranking national-security official perjured himself before Congress
- When the leak causes multiple members of Congress to express alarm at policies being carried out without their knowledge
Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have previously offered Snowden asylum, but it is unclear if he could get to any of those countries without being intercepted by the United States.
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