Frame Game

The German Gambit

Snowden exposed NSA espionage against the Germans. He wants their protection from the U.S. Will he get it?

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden in Russia, captured in video footage shown on Oct. 31, 2013.

Photo via Reuters

Edward Snowden leaked documents from the National Security Agency in the name of privacy and transparency. He believed that people around the world should know the NSA was spying on them. Now he’s using the anger of those people to protect himself from the U.S. government.

In his first recorded interview with the Guardian, conducted on June 6, Snowden said he had joined the U.S. intelligence community as a naïve patriot. Over the years, he had learned that the government was “misleading all publics, not just the American public, in order to create a certain mindset in the global consciousness.” He had come to regard himself as a citizen of the world, rejecting the NSA’s premise that U.S. intelligence agencies had no duty to respect foreigners’ privacy. “The US Person/foreigner distinction is not a reasonable substitute for individualized suspicion,” Snowden wrote in a Q&A with the Guardian on June 17. Four weeks later, in a July 12 statement at the Moscow airport, he declared,

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. … I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg in 1945: “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”

I take Snowden at his word. He believes everyone has a right to privacy. That, above all, is why he has leaked these documents. But he’s also human. From the moment he revealed his identity, he has been pursued by the U.S. government, seeking his extradition and prosecution. His passport has been revoked, blocking his freedom to travel. He knows what happened to Chelsea Manning. To defend himself, Snowden needs friends. He needs governments that are willing to protect him from the U.S.

That’s one reason why Snowden went to Hong Kong in the first place. According to his principal collaborator, journalist Glenn Greenwald, Snowden fled there in part because he believed  that “the Chinese government and the government of Hong Kong will not be simply subservient or complicit in adhering to U.S. dictates regarding what it is that they want to do to him.” Surely that’s why Snowden, while still in Hong Kong, picked China as the first country whose victimization by the NSA he would expose.

Since then, Greenwald and other reporters, armed with Snowden’s files, have exposed NSA surveillance against France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, India, and many other countries. The Germans, in particular, are furious that the NSA tapped the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. They plan to investigate exactly what the NSA has done to them over the years. For that, they need Snowden’s help. They want his testimony.

And that, in turn, presents Snowden with an opportunity. On Oct. 31 he wrote a letter to the Germans. In the letter, released this morning, he describes his principles, his audience, and his mission in global terms. “I witnessed systemic violations of law by my government that created a moral duty to act,” he writes. “Citizens around the world as well as high officials—including in the United States—have judged the revelation of an unaccountable system of pervasive surveillance to be a public service.”

Now he needs help from these citizens and officials. “I have faced a severe and sustained campaign of persecution that forced me from my family and home,” he writes. “I am currently living in exile under a grant of temporary asylum.” He concludes,

[M]y government continues to treat dissent as defection, and seeks to criminalize political speech with felony charges that provide no defense. … I am confident that with the support of the international community, the government of the United States will abandon this harmful behavior. I hope that when the difficulties of this humanitarian situation have been resolved, I will be able to cooperate in the responsible finding of fact regarding reports in the media, particularly in regard to the truth and authenticity of documents, as appropriate and in accordance with the law. I look forward to speaking with you in your country when the situation is resolved …

You don’t need NSA software to decipher this message. Snowden is telling the Germans he’ll gladly testify in their investigation—though he’d prefer to do so before the U.S. Congress—but first he needs their help. He needs guarantees that he can fly to Germany, and remain there, under legal protection from extradition. The Germans, armed with his disclosures of U.S. espionage against them, must use that leverage, legally and politically, to stand up to the U.S.

Will they oblige him? I doubt it. But I’ve been wrong about this story before. When Snowden revealed his identity, I thought he was doomed. One man couldn’t escape the global reach and wrath of the U.S. government, could he? But Snowden’s leaks, regardless of his motives, have served him well. They have earned him friends around the world and have turned those friends against the U.S. Now we’ll see whether, for the man himself, it pays off.