National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden has left Hong Kong and is en route today to seek political asylum from Ecuador. The Obama administration charged Snowden under the Espionage Act, demonstrating just how far the administration has strayed from its campaign platform of protecting whistleblowers and promoting government transparency.
As the world eagerly watches Snowden's movements today, the public should put aside the mainstream media frenzy buzzing around Snowden's personal life, and ask the more important question: in a country with the freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment, why does a whistleblower have to seek political asylum elsewhere after exposing government wrongdoing?
Criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act, FBI raids, political asylum, prison time: this is what national security whistleblowers have to face in a surveillance state.
My clients and NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake, J. Kirk Wiebe, and William Binney went through the proper internal channels to blow the whistle, but that did not protect them. In fact, it made them targets of a years-long federal criminal investigation ending in the now-failed Espionage Act prosecution of Drake. Another client, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) whistleblower John Kiriakou helped expose the CIA's torture program and is serving 30 months in federal prison.
Snowden meets the criteria for political asylum, and, as a signatory to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Ecuador has an obligation to grant asylum where the criteria are met.
Asylum eligibility has three requirements, all of which Snowden meets: 1) a well-founded fear of persecution, 2) on account of a protected ground (in Snowden's case, "political opinion"), and 3) a government is either involved in the persecution (in Snowden's case, the United States) or unable to control the conduct of private actors. In fact, Snowden's asylum case is even stronger than that of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who received asylum from Ecuador just over a year ago, because the U.S. has unsealed the criminal charges against Snowden.
Revealing the blatant hypocrisy of prosecuting whistleblowers for disclosures, anonymous government officials provided The Washington Post with a scoop on the then-sealed criminal complaint against Snowden.
After The Washington Post reported the charges, senior administration officials said late Friday that the Justice Department was barraged with calls from lawmakers and reporters and decided to unseal the criminal complaint.Every attack on Snowden both personal and legal redirects focus from where it belongs: on NSA's massive domestic spying operations. Or, as Valerie Plame and Ambassador Joe Wilson wrote over the weekend:
As interesting as his flight to Hong Kong might be, the pole-dancing girlfriend, and interviews from undisclosed locations, his fate is just a sideshow to the essential issues of national security versus constitutional guarantees of privacy, which his disclosures have surfaced in sharp relief.Put it another way, courtesy of former New York Times editor Max Frankel:
. . .
As it now stands, these programs are ripe for abuse unless we establish ground rules and barriers between authentic national security interests and potential political chicanery.
Information that is gathered and managed in secret is a potent weapon.It's a weapon we saw used against peace activists during the Vietnam War, civil rights activists during the civil rights movement, and political opponents during the McCarthy era. Now the surveillance state is turned against whistleblowers, journalists, and hacktivists. This is the wrong direction for a country with the First Amendment.