Germany Should Welcome Edward Snowden
So argued Wenzel Michalski of Human Rights Watch on 5th June – a year to the day after the first story based on the Snowden leaks was published by the Guardian. I thought I’d sort of respond to that – and take it as an opportunity of putting into context for English readers the German posts that I have recently blogged here.
Many of us know what happened next: charged by the US government under the Espionage Act, Snowden left Hong Kong where he had been working with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, for South America where he was hoping to obtain asylum. He never got there. The US government cancelled Snowden’s passport, stranding him in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for six weeks until the Russian government granted him temporary asylum on 1st August 2013. Which brings us to yet another looming “anniversary” or rather deadline: Edward Snowden’s asylum in Russia is about to expire.
While his lawyers have stated that they expect the asylum to be extended, Mr Snowden has also indicated that he would prefer asylum in a different, more democratic country. Germany seems to rank pretty highly on Mr Snowden’s personal wish list and there have been negotiations for some time about Mr Snowden’s possible involvement as a witness in the NSA inquiry launched by the German parliament. Recently the parliamentary committee responsible for the inquiry has agreed to speak to Mr Snowden in Moscow. Whether or not this will lead to him being invited to Germany to testify (and then granted witness protection or asylum) remains to be seen. It does not seem likely.
That is not necessarily because Germany does not welcome Mr Snowden. Many German people do. In the days and weeks leading up to 5th June and on the day itself, there were campaigns all over Germany: 40,000 people put up signs symbolically offering Mr Snowden shelter in their homes, 200,000 people signed a petition demanding he be granted asylum.
The problem, as with so many things in this whole shambolic mass surveillance affair, aren’t the people (although arguably, awareness of and debate about the Snowden-disclosures and NSA and GCHQ spying do not go anywhere near far enough). The problem, as so very often, is the government. And not just the government but recently German courts of law too.
To investigate or not to investigate? The lead prosecutor
Hence my various posts in German on the question of sovereignty (also available in English), the insanity that is the legal opinion commissioned by the German government from a US law firm and, most recently, the conduct of Germany’s lead prosecutor, Harald Range.
Range and his department have been deliberating for some time whether or not they should launch investigations into NSA spying – not to mention violations of the rights of millions of Germans. Last week, they announced they were not going to do that. There wasn’t enough evidence, they claimed, nor were there witnesses for NSA misconduct in Germany against Germans. Requests for assistance from the US government had not been complied with. The German government refused to provide both the lead prosecutor and the NSA parliamentary committee with certain sensitive documents (the common guess is that that’s because they’d rather not have people find out what Germany’s own intelligence agency, the BND, is doing). What was the point of an investigation, the lead prosecutor’s argument seemed to go, that was unlikely to render any results? You may understand why I – along with many Germans – nearly lost it then.
As I wrote last week, I have two words for the lead prosecutor: Edward Snowden.
Mr Snowden is a key witness and would be able to give crucial evidence to both the lead prosecutor’s office and the NSA inquiry committee. That is but one reason why Germany should welcome him – other obvious reasons, such as the services he has rendered democracies and people around the world, aside.
That seems obvious to most people except perhaps the lead prosecutor and some of the ladies and gentlemen on the NSA committee.
The committee’s chair, for example, has accused Mr Snowden of “acting up” and demanded proof that Mr Snowden really has things to say that are of interest to the committee.
As for the lead prosecutor, things got a bit uncomfortable for him after it emerged that his office had told some of Mr Snowden’s supporters that even if Range was to take legal action, there would be “no room” for witnesses.
In response (or not – who knows anymore?) to the public outcry that followed the announcement that there would be no investigation, the lead prosecutor then announced a few days ago that he is going to launch an investigation into the surveillance of chancellor Merkel’s mobile phone.
Now, where do we even begin counting the ways in which this is wrong?
Oh I know, how about we start off with the fact that apparently invasions into the privacy and infringements of the rights of millions of Germans weren’t enough to warrant an investigation but snooping on the chancellor’s phone is? How about we then continue with the repeated refusal to properly reach out to Mr Snowden? Or my personal favourite: the German government is willing to “exert diplomatic pressure” on the US to support the lead prosecutor’s investigation into the hacking of Ms Merkel’s phone – to the dismay of the US – but shows no such commitment to the bid of some NSA committee members to invite Mr Snowden for testimony.
Apparently, it is right and proper, when the chancellor’s phone is concerned, to risk falling out with the US, but not so much when it comes to the person who, as Wenzel Michalski puts it, “did the world a great favour” by basically single-handedly making the case for “human rights online” in the fight for which Germany has now taken on a “leadership role”.
Which brings us round again to the question of German sovereignty. Asked if the German government would be able to protect Mr Snowden from being arrested in Germany, the response was a simple “no”. Asked if the Germany government was willing to guarantee that Germany would not extradite Mr Snowden the answer was – you have guessed it – “no” again. Who then, I ask once more, really makes these decisions in Germany? Because I am not sure the German government does.
To be fair to them, they probably do. Which makes things even worse. Because there can be only two explanations for why the government would decide in disfavour of Mr Snowden: either, they’re a grovelling bunch of gutless wonders, too obsequious to their Big Brother USA to stand up for what is right, or there really is something that the BND does that they do not want to come to light.
Here is what else: Mr Michalski, although perfectly right that Germany the German government should, if not exactly whole-heartedly welcome Mr Snowden, at least do what is right and protect a legitimate and much-vindicated whistleblower from “conviction on various federal charges that could consign him to decades in prison,” is perhaps a little too optimistic on several other counts:
Angela Merkel, he writes, is one of the strongest voices pressing the US on the need for reform. Germany expanded the Department of Cyber Politics at the Foreign office, established a Commissioner for the Federal Intelligence Services at the chancellery, and a commission of inquiry at the parliament…In cooperation with Brazil, Germany is pressing other countries to carry out existing human rights obligations and prevent the arbitrary collection of data.
Would that that were true. If it was, it would indeed be “incomprehensible and paradoxical” – “[i]n light of Germany’s willingness to take up the mantle for internet freedom” – “that our political leaders do not support having Snowden come to Berlin to testify as well as protecting him from extradition to the US.”
However, as Germany’s Netzpolitik has summed up (in German), after a year of Snowden-revelations many of the German government’s best laid plans to fight mass surveillance, such as a UN resolution put forward by Germany and Brazil, have either been watered down or reduced to nothing. And the German government has led that happen.
A year on, it seems that we are much further away from meaningful reform than we had hoped, and the Germany government certainly isn’t internet freedom’s knight in shining armour.
Knowing this, it is not that incomprehensible after all that Germany’s leaders fail to support Edward Snowden who, through his revelations, has made debate and reform possible. As debate and reform seem to run only skin-deep, why bother risking the US’s disapproval by supporting the man who enabled them?
It’s not all doom and gloom
Yes, Germany should welcome Edward Snowden. Many Germans would welcome Edward Snowden. It is a sad indictment of German democracy that the welcoming voices of the German people go unheard by so many of their elected representatives. And it is difficult, a year on, no to take a completely doomy and gloomy view of the developments.
To end on a positive note, perhaps we should turn to the ever-optimistic Mr Snowden himself, who recently told audiences at the Personal Democracy Forum 2014 that governments may be slow to implement meaningful reform but that the debate people are having the world over gives him hope.
Let’s also bear in mind what Trevor Timm writes:
The second year of Snowden may be more important than the first. It’s when we’ll see if global privacy rights get protected for the better – or if mass surveillance becomes more entrenched in our laws than ever before…In the coming year, the public will have to decide: are you willing to continue to fight for real and permanent change, or will the NSA sink back into the shadows, allowed to continue its mass surveillance, largely unabated, until the next Snowden comes along?
The people of Germany may never be able to welcome Edward Snowden in any more than a symbolic way. What we can do, however – and not just Germans, obviously – is to make sure that he has not given up his life for nothing.
To that, Germany’s Netzpolitik says this (translation from German):
Our rightful criticism, disappointment and outrage at our politicians aside, it is for us to do our bit too. We, as citizens of democratic society must not stop being outraged. We must derive decisive action from that outrage…on our own, as individuals, we may be powerless against mass surveillance. However, there is a great number of tiny things anyone could do and we all have a responsibility of finding ours – and using it.
Yes, it is tiresome and frustrating to see, a year after Snowden, how little meaningful change there has been in politics and also how sluggish the debate still is in many places. But in the end, we are living in democratic societies and we must not allow ourselves to be discouraged into silence.
Germany should welcome Edward Snowden but what people everywhere in the world must do is ensure that his message continues to be heard, even if our governments are unwilling to listen. Until someone comes along who will.