The global hunt for Edward Snowden is damaging U.S. interests in ways that go far beyond the intelligence data he leaked.
The wild flight of the fugitive leaker — from Hong Kong to the transit area of Moscow’s Sherymetyvo Airport, and perhaps on to Ecuador — has turned into a public humiliation for the White House. U.S. officials publicly threatened “consequences” if Snowden wasn’t returned, only to be openly rebuffed by Chinese officials and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. This made embarrassingly clear how little leverage President Barack Obama has in Moscow or Beijing (and how much wiser it would have been to request Snowden’s return in private).
Most disturbing, the Snowden affair has enabled some of the world’s worst human rights offenders to portray themselves as champions of freedom by defending Snowden while denouncing America as a massive violator of rights.
China’s Xinhua news agency branded the United States as “the biggest (cyber)villain in our age.” Russian parliamentarians did likewise. You might think that such self-righteous claims would be dismissed as political posturing. Yet in today’s world, with America’s image sullied by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and by our paralyzed politics, these charges can find a receptive audience, not only abroad but at home.
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So let’s look at the records of the countries that are offering Snowden the greatest support.
For starters, there is something bizarre about the list. While Snowden claims to be defending personal freedoms, he has sought shelter from egregious violators of human rights, including China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. Whatever his motives, this lends an air of hypocrisy to his claims.
He took refuge in Hong Kong, which is part of China, whose leaders control the country’s Internet portals, block content and monitor individual access. The Chinese censor print and electronic media and have “the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world,” according to Amnesty International. Chinese government hackers have conducted massive commercial and military espionage in the United States (and presumably elsewhere) and even breached Google’s computers.
Beijing is obviously delighted that it can fend off U.S. complaints by claiming America does likewise. Such charges are bogus — and they know it. Whatever your opinion about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the fact is that Congress OK’d them and set up special courts to monitor them. The U.S. public can debate whether the controls should be tightened, and demand change.
In China, no Congress or courts govern surveillance nor can Chinese citizens oppose it. Government hackers break into the software of international companies such as Apple to steal industrial secrets — on a massive scale. As Obama noted, that’s not normal intelligence gathering; “that’s theft.”
Then there’s Russia, where the state controls all major newspapers and national TV networks, which are still the major news source for the bulk of the population. Journalists are beaten up or murdered, and the perpetrators, conveniently, are never found. Political dissenters are cowed, arrested, or driven into exile.
So when Putin praises Snowden as a “human rights activist” who “struggles for freedom of information,” it’s hard not to gag. Any Russian who did similarly would wind up in the gulag or worse.
Snowden’s final destination — possibly Ecuador via Venezuela — is equally odd for a defender of freedom. As pointed out by Bill Sweeney, editorial director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Venezuela has shut down independent broadcasters via a system of politicized regulations.
As for Ecuador, its populist president, Rafael Correa, has criminalized reporting that is critical of his government — and prosecuted journalists who attempt it. If Correa grants asylum to Snowden, it won’t be because he loves press freedom, but because he wants to give Obama a black eye.
That brings us to the heart of the matter. Snowden’s saviors have seized a delicious opportunity to deflect U.S. criticism of their own cyberattacks and rights violations by branding the United States as the real sinner. Dogged by images from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Washington has become an easy target. Even some allies have tired of America’s human rights demands (which are readily ignored when strategic concerns trump them, as in Syria).
So, critics of American hubris may cheer when Putin praises Snowden — or when the People’s Daily proclaims that Snowden “tore off Washington’s sanctimonious mask.” It’s necessary to remind them: The countries helping Snowden aren’t doing so because they dislike spying. On the contrary. They don’t want limits on their own surveillance, just on ours.