Snowden's Just-Filed Russian Asylum Request Might Be Best for Everyone

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Edward Snowden has turned in his application for temporary asylum in Russia, a Russian human rights lawyer told the Associated Press. That application (and, of course, its approval) is the first step in Snowden's two-step plan for avoiding prosecution in the United States. It's hard to see where the plan could go wrong at this point—and it's not clear the U.S. has a lot to gain from prosecuting Snowden anyway.

Snowden's application was submitted on his behalf by Moscow lawyer Anatoly Kucherena. Kucherena worked with Snowden on the application in the transit zone, then turned it over to agents from the Federal Migration Service. describes the request:

Temporary asylum is sort of “humanitarian status” or postponed deportation. … The initial application review period may take up to five days, and the rest of the process can be pro-longed to three months.

In the event that it is approved, the applicant has a right to stay in the country for 12 months and can then extend this term for another year.

During that year, it appears, Snowden will be planning to figure out the country in which he wants to seek permanent asylum. (And, of course, how to get there without risking capture.)

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While meeting with students yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed Snowden's asylum, which Putin previously said was contingent on the leaker curtailing the release of information damaging to the United States. This stipulation prompted Snowden to rescind his first asylum request in the country. According to CBS News, Putin indicated that he believed Snowden "has somehow changed his position" on ending the leaks, "but the final situation still has not been clarified." The Russian president also made it clear that Snowden wasn't exactly being embraced. "As soon as there is an opportunity for him to move elsewhere," USA Today quotes him saying, "I hope he will do that." Snowden likely doesn't face much risk staying in Russia. The country has no extradition treaty with the United States, and it has previously indicated that it wouldn't turn Snowden over to American authorities.

In a blog post at LawfareBlog yesterday, Columbia University associate law professor and former State Department adviser David Pozen argued that the United States might be better served by not prosecuting Snowden, anyway. Pozen notes that the leak is done, a "sunk cost," and that prosecuting him as a deterrent won't make much more point than forcing Snowden into exile. But the bigger problem is what might happen in court.

Snowden would no doubt obtain high-powered lawyers. Protesters would ring the courthouse. Journalists would camp out inside. As proceedings dragged on for months, the spotlight would remain on the N.S.A.’s spying and the administration’s pursuit of leakers. Instead of fading into obscurity, the Snowden affair would continue to grab headlines, and thus to undermine the White House’s ability to shape political discourse.

A trial could turn out to be much more than a distraction: It could be a focal point for domestic and international outrage. From the executive branch’s institutional perspective, the greatest danger posed by the Snowden case is not to any particular program. It is to the credibility of the secrecy system, and at one remove the ideal of our government as a force for good.

It's not likely that the United States will end its quest to capture and try Snowden. But in the long run, his receiving temporary asylum in Russia and then permanent asylum in Latin America might be the best outcome for both sides.

Update, 2:20 p.m.: claims to have obtained this photo of the application, which Kucherena said he worked on with Snowden for "hours."

This has not been verified.

Photo: Russian police at Sheremetyevo Airport. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.