The surprising news that Edward Snowden escaped Hong Kong, apparently with the connivance of the Chinese authorities, and arrived in Moscow (with the connivance of Vladimir Putin), made me realize that this international incident has taken on overtones of old-fashioned Cold War cloak and dagger. The principles that motivated Snowden to become a whistle-blower and expose the massive international spying and data-mining of the NSA, are rapidly being subsumed by geopolitical maneuvering from Washington DC to Beijing to Moscow.
These great powers should begin to realize that they each have interests that could be served by reaching a resolution of this impasse. Way back in the old days (and even as recently as a few years ago), when we had somebody of theirs and they had somebody of ours there was a prisoner exchange. So why not now, in this situation?
I can think any number of prisoners on either side who could be part of a swap. In return for the U.S. dropping charges against Snowden, the Chinese could offer to free their Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, the Russians could release the two imprisoned members of Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khodorovsky, who’s been in prison for over a decade and faces a virtual life sentence (until Putin falls from power).
Snowden could settle in an agreed upon third country like Ecuador or Iceland. Khodorovsky could leave Russia, and Pussy Riot, should it wish to, could leave as well. Liu could join another Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, in this country.
The U.S. would do well to consider this since once (or if) Snowden reaches Ecuador, he’s no longer within U.S. reach. At that point, Obama will have lost any leverage and the man American pols and spooks are calling a “traitor” will be free. Snowden, if he wishes, could thumb his nose at his pursuers and spend the rest of his life needling the U.S. and spilling his secrets (as long as he has them) day by day and drop by drop.
Wouldn’t it make more sense, be a more principled resolution, for the U.S. to get something in return for dropping charges against Snowden? Wouldn’t the U.S. save face if it could retrieve something of value in the form of the freedom of others unjustly held in China and/or Russia?
It’s possibly a slightly odd proposal, but it sure makes sense more than the highly destabilizing series of events that’s played out over the past few weeks. Think of this, how many more revelations can the NSA take about its work inside and outside the U.S.? So far, Snowden has exposed massive data collection by British intelligence, massive NSA hacking into tens of thousands of Chinese internet and phone accounts. Next he’ll reveal what the NSA has on Putin and the Russians. How much of this can we stand? My advice: Barack, do a deal. Get this thing settled. It’s only going to get worse. At this point, it’s drowned out any policy or legislative agenda the president might have had for weeks. It could drag on much longer. Does the president want his entire term hijacked with the slow drip of Chinese water torture disclosures?
Further, imagine the U.S. succeeds in a dramatic capture of Snowden and, with its usual flourish in these matters, determines to prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law. Then, instead of an interesting civil liberties and constitutional rights issue of interest to a small cross-section of American policy wonks and human rights activists, you’d have a movement in the making. Snowden’s prosecution would threaten to become a media circus. It might allow both libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats to coalesce around an issue that could resonate in ways similar to how Occupy Wall Street originated.
Of course, I could be overestimating the gravitas of this scandal. Perhaps it would remain one whose damage could be contained even after Snowden’s arrest and prosecution. But I think Obama’s in for a surprise if he brings Snowden to justice. Just look at what it took to bring hundreds of thousands to the streets of Istanbul: a bunch of threatened trees in a park. Does Obama want to risk it?
If anyone wants to argue that a Snowden prosecution would be similar to the Manning prosecution, I disagree. They can’t try Snowden in Guantanamo. They’d have to try him in a U.S. court. Further, Manning is a soldier and most Americans object to a soldier doing what he did. But Snowden, despite working for spooks, is a civilian. No amount of yammering from Keith Alexander about the danger Snowden exposed our agents to will convince Americans that his whistle-blowing didn’t have an important principle at its root.
On a slightly different note: it would appear to me that Glenn Greenwald would not be eligible to win a Pulitzer Prize, since he publishes in the Guardian, which isn’t a U.S. media outlet. But if anyone deserves it, it’s Greenwald. Perhaps it’s stretching it, but…if the Nobel committee could award an entirely undeserving Barack Obama a Nobel Peace Prize, why not award one jointly to Snowden and Greenwald? Wouldn’t you love to see Snowden accept his award by video feed from the president’s palace in Ecuador?