“You’re in our airspace. Land.”
So, this week there they were, right in our faces: a thousand and one reasons for why Edward Snowden will quite probably remain stuck in Russia. Okay, not a thousand and one – that’s hyperbole. But several pretty weighty ones.
Ewen MacAskill, one of the reporters who met Snowden in Hong Kong, was quoted by German newspaper TAZ as saying that he expected Snowden would have to stay in Russia for much longer. There weren’t many countries that would withstand pressure from the US, MacAskill said. Also, there was nothing that Snowden could offer the US in return for, say, a plea bargain, so his chances of returning home were just as remote.
As if to remind us of what is likely to happen to Snowden should he return to the US to face trial, Chelsea Manning (yes, the Iraq War Logs whistleblower who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for telling us all that was going wrong in Iraq) resurfaced by writing an op-ed in the New York Times about the US army’s control of war reporting – an enlightening piece of writing that is a must-read.
Then there is the Washington Post. In an article titled “U.S. officials scrambled to nab Snowden, hoping he would take a wrong step. He didn’t,” journalist Greg Miller reveals what was going on behind the scenes at meetings between “senior officials from the FBI, the CIA, the State Department and other agencies” who last year “assembled nearly every day in a desperate search for a way to apprehend” Edward Snowden.
“The best play for us is him landing in a third country,” the piece quotes White House homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco as saying, citing an official who “who met with her at the White House.” The same official “who… discussed internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity, added:
We were hoping he was going to be stupid enough to get on some kind of airplane, and then have an ally say: ‘You’re in our airspace. Land.’
We all know how that played out. The Post article mentions the incident with the Bolivian presidential plane.
And while on the subject of aircraft. The Register revealed this week that apparently a CIA rendition jet was sent to snatch Snowden last year, just when he had “arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong intending to fly on to Cuba” (this was on 24th June 2013). So much for Snowden’s travel anxiety. So much for president Obama’s statement about not “scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker”. So much, also, it seems, for Mr Snowden’s hope of leaving Russia for a third country any time soon. At least his asylum in Russia “is expected to be extended this summer.”
“We know exactly where Mr Snowden is” – or do we?
As for third countries: the quotes from Lisa Monaco and the anonymous official above really tell us all we need to know about the relationships these countries have with the US. And considering how most governments seem to misplace their balls (and guts and any other metaphorically courageous part of their bodies – I have said this before), it is difficult not to wonder whether it isn’t just as well that Mr Snowden never made it to any of them.
According to the Washington Post there seems to be some confusion over whether or not the US government knows Mr Snowden’s exact whereabouts in Russia. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has claimed they “know exactly where Mr. Snowden is.” If true, it may tell us something about the relationship between the US and Russia (although nothing about the alleged relationship between Mr Snowden and Russia) that the US haven’t sent in a jet to apprehend him yet. Apparently, they did try when they send that rendition jet last year, but could not negotiate Mr Snowden’s extradition, so the US jet landed in Copenhagen instead. Russia, it would seem, isn’t a nation whose sovereign rights the US is easily prepared to violate – and which will not easily cave in to US pressure either.
Then again, perhaps the US don’t know Mr Snowden’s exact whereabouts after all. “Others,” the Post article continues, “said the United States lacks answers to even basic questions about Snowden’s circumstances, including where he lives and — perhaps most important — the role of the Russian security service, the FSB, in his day-to-day life.”
As to the FSB, the US may lack answers to questions about its “relationship” with Mr Snowden but they don’t seem to really believe that he is a Russian asset. Or at least they have no proof, because:
Several U.S. officials cited a complication to gathering intelligence on Snowden…: the fact that there has been no determination that he is an “agent of a foreign power,” a legal distinction required to make an American citizen a target of espionage overseas.
(For the record: I do not believe Mr Snowden works for any Russian agency. Just saying.)
It is indeed, as Miller writes somewhat “ironic”, that Mr Snowden is shielded from surveillance by his own colleagues but the irony runs deeper than the Post article suggests. That’s because it seems doubtful – given what we know because of the Snowden disclosures – that the US wouldn’t just go and surveil Mr Snowden anyway – legal basis or no legal basis – if their “reach in Moscow” wasn’t, as Miller writes, “limited”.
Germany: what was that about the BND and the NSA being in bed together? Here’s what.
Which brings us to another big revelation this week that is of relevance to Mr Snowden’s fate: Germany’s Der Spiegel in its print publication ran a feature about the BND’s (Germany’s foreign intelligence agency) relationship with the NSA, accusing the German government of not acting decisively enough (or at all) on NSA spying and hinting that Germany may have aided and abetted US drone strikes by being involved in crucial information gathering. This is a biggie for Germans. If true, Der Spiegel writes, Germany’s chancellor and her interior minister have some responsibility for the deaths of people killed in US drone strikes. If however, Der Spiegel’s editorial states, the government didn’t know that the NSA were carrying out espionage on German soil, then the chancellor’s official oath mandates that the government take legal action.
It yet remains to be seen what the response from the German government to the Spiegel piece is going to be but judging by everything that’s happened so far, I am guessing probably very little. Which again hints worrying things either about German sovereignty (which I have commented on before) or Germany’s knowledge of and involvement in NSA and GCHQ spying.
What Der Spiegel has disclosed also provides a very clear hint at why the German government has been so frantic in its attempts at keeping Mr Snowden from testifying in Germany where he might be able to provide further information on the BND’s cooperation with the NSA. After what Der Spiegel has just reported, that testimony seems more urgent than ever. It also seems more unlikely than ever. If the BND has behaved unlawfully, then quite possibly the government is going to continue trying to prevent that information going on the official record (a record that isn’t a newspaper that is). So much for democracy and accountability.
And given the cosy relationship the NSA seems to have with the BND, surveillance of Mr Snowden would probably become a lot easier for US authorities in Germany than it seems to be in Russia. So far, there was room for speculation that perhaps the German government’s warnings that they would not be able to guarantee Mr Snowden’s safety in Germany or their refusal to guarantee that he would not be extradited were merely designed to deter Mr Snowden from coming to Germany. Empty threats that would evaporate into thin air once he actually got to Germany and applied for asylum, merely designed to prevent the German government from being stuck with Snowden on their hands. Now, there is ample scope for believing that the German government would allow what the Russian government didn’t last July: for the US government’s N977GA plane to land in Germany and spirit Mr Snowden away to imprisonment – if not “invisible” and “black” imprisonment, then perhaps to 23 hours a day of solitary confinement without trial, like Chelsea Manning. After all, why wouldn’t a government that aides and abets drone strikes aid and abet other human rights violations as well? Go ahead, German government, prove me wrong!
The story about the CIA rendition jet failing to apprehend Mr Snowden may seem like an amusing anecdote (especially because it was English plane enthusiasts who spotted it). That is, if it didn’t once again expose Obama’s dismissal of the small effort his government would put into apprehending Mr Snowden a lie. And anyway, the Post and Spiegel pieces are distinctly un-amusing. With them, we can wave what was left of our governments’ credibility goodbye – and, as far as Germany is concerned, probably also what hope there was left of a proper investigation into NSA spying. Given the possible involvement of the BND and the knowledge of this and former German governments of what was going on, Ms Merkel and her minions can have very little interest in letting anyone probe too deeply into what exactly is happening at US military facilities in Germany.
Let us be clear: the German government would not have to hand Mr Snowden over, if he somehow managed to end up within German territory. Note what the Post piece says about the incident with Evo Morales’ plane: “Even if Snowden had been a passenger, officials said, it is unclear how he could have been removed from a Bolivian air force jet whose cabin would ordinarily be regarded as that country’s sovereign domain.” Hence, if any government were willing to protect Mr Snowden, they probably could, unless the US were prepared to cause one whopper of a diplomatic scandal. After this week, and a year of the same, I for one do not believe any government will agree to protect Mr Snowden. Except the Russian government of course.
Yes, Mr Snowden will quite possibly have to stay in Russia for a lot longer. Germany will not help him out. And considering Hilary Clinton’s recent comments, the next US administration’s approach to the matter also seems clear. If anything, the relationship between the US and Germany is likely to get even cosier. Too bad for Snowden, too bad for us.