The Aftermath of Snowden’s Flight
The Aftermath of Snowden’s Flight
Last weekend, alleged NSA leaker Edward Snowden left Hong Kong on an Aeroflot flight to Russia. According to reports, his departure came at the behest of the Chinese government in Beijing. There is uncertainty about where he will end up, though many analysts think it will be Ecuador. For the time being, though, he’s hiding in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. What happens now?
At a basic level, what is so striking about Snowden’s escape is how it is revealing an emerging global bloc opposed to American interests. China’s own role in Snowden’s escape is unsurprising; there was local government unease in his stay in Hong Kong, and Beijing scored a significant public relations coup by helping him leave without openly harboring him. Russia’s growing antagonism toward the United States, richly mirrored by Russophobic Congressmen and amplified by retaliatory laws, has taken place openly over the last several years. But the rise of Ecuador as a key safe haven for anti-American leakers and their enablers — first Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and now Snowden — is remarkable as well.
As Bill Sweeney, editorial director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, puts it, the countries to which Snowden travels are remarkable not for their commitment to press freedom but for the opposite. After recounting the various repressions of journalism in Russia and China, he notes that Snowden’s final destination is no free speech paradise, either:
Snowden is said to be seeking asylum in Ecuador, with passage reportedly through Venezuela. Leaks of sensitive government information are growing less likely by the day in the two nations, which have moved aggressively to silence independent reporting. Venezuela has effectively eradicated independent broadcast outlets through its politicized regulatory system. Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, has pursued criminal prosecution of his critics. His government went even further this month, as CPJ’s John Otis recounted, with the adoption of sweeping legislation that criminalizes critical follow-up reporting and obligates news media to cover government-prescribed activities.
Over the weekend, Wikileaks bragged that they also helped Snowden escape. Spearheaded by legal director Baltasar Garzon — a former Spanish judge famous for ordering the extradition of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who was barred from practicing law in Spain for illegal wiretaps in an anti-corruption case — the anti-secrecy organization claims it was organizing Snowden’s potential asylum in Ecuador.
The Russian government then pulled a hilarious trick: They announced that Snowden was boarding a plane to Havana, but he never boarded the plane. A bunch of journalists, eager to interview him on the flight, boarded and were trapped on board as the plane flew 6,000 miles away from the story. You can almost hear the FSB, Russia’s internal security service, laughing at the prank.
While the world press tries to find out where Snowden is staying or traveling — and unraveling the misdirections, false leads, and double-talk from the many governments and organizations helping him — it’s time to start thinking about what other consequences are going to come from his leaks.
The most immediate consequence for the U.S. government is that the Snowden leaks severely compromised public trust. President Obama was already fighting with the press over an escalating series of scandals involving potentially improper Justice Department investigations of reporters exposing secret intelligence operations. Last month’s revelations of a massive surveillance complex snooping on phone data and emails surely accelerated any drop in public trust.
The problem posed by this break of trust is that Washington runs on it (Snowden is hated largely for violating it, too). Yet there are few reasons to blindly trust the government after a decade of broken promises, failed wars, and dodgy policy explanations. Washington is facing a legitimacy crisis.
Another consequence will be internal: The government will have to formulate a response to these leaks, and there are fears it will not be pretty. A report last week by McClatchy found alarming policies in place at many agencies, even those that don’t handle classified information.
Government documents reviewed by McClatchy illustrate how some agencies are using that latitude to pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material. They also show how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.
This sort of overreaction to security threats will not stop a future determined Snowden-like leaker, but it will make life more miserable for federal employees (it is also, sadly, a predictable response to compromised security).
A last, more important consequence of Snowden’s leaks: China gained a massive advantage in its rivalry with the United States. The New York Times in particular has been covering many aspects of Chinese cyber-espionage, both against U.S. agencies and U.S. corporations (including the New York Times Company). But with the revelation that the U.S. does the same sort of thing to China and Chinese companies — a safe assumption even before Snowden’s leaks — American complaints of Chinese perfidy will ring especially hollow.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s polite umbrage notwithstanding, it remains to be seen how America’s sputtering anger over Snowden’s seeming impunity will affect the state relations of China, Ecuador, Russia, and the U.S. At the very least, tensions will spike again as Snowden continues to be handed off like a hot potato.
In the end, the U.S. government has lost, badly. It lost face when Snowden leaked everything; it lost the cloak of secrecy that many of its most treasured surveillance programs enjoyed; it lost a rhetorical contest with China over cyber security; it lost public confidence, and now it’s losing to Russia and Ecuador’s offers of asylum. While that’s not automatically a disaster for Washington, hopefully this series of humiliating failures will prompt some thinking about how the next Snowden can be avoided in the future.