So the Russian government has finally—and predictably—granted Edward Snowden “temporary asylum” for a year. Does that worry you? It shouldn’t—unless you are a Russian.
As I think of Snowden and his actions over the past few weeks I am reminded of the ancient saying, “whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. “ Imagine: he did not want to live in a country that eavesdrops on his conversations. So he leaves one that has pretty effective mechanisms to prevent that happening, at least by government officials, and goes to two that are notorious for invasions of privacy, to put it mildly, particularly by government officials. And now, if anything is certain, it is that his every step and every breath will be monitored by somebody.
I was a consular officer at the American embassy in Moscow in the early 1960s and I noted that almost every American “defector” to the Soviet Union—even some who had spied for them—clamored to go home after a year or two. In one notable case, that of Lee Harvey Oswald, it is unfortunate that we let him return. But he had broken no law. Snowden has, and when he comes back, he will be held to account.
OK, it’s not as if present-day Russia is comparable to the Soviet Union. Snowden will find more amenities there than Oswald did in Minsk in 1960. But the sort of freedom an emotional anarchist like Snowden is looking for? Get real! If he wants to escape from snooping (to which he was apparently never subjected in the United States), he has gone to the wrong place.
Should President Obama cancel his planned visit to Moscow in September? Absolutely not! If he had wanted to establish the sort of relationship with Moscow that would induce the Russian government to refuse entry to snitches like Snowden, he would have headed off or vetoed the Magnitsky Act, which had no practical effect except to stimulate counter moves on Russia’s part. It would have been utterly unrealistic to expect Snowden’s extradition without an extradition treaty that would require the U.S. to extradite genuine asylum seekers—a concession the United States should not make. But, with a better U.S.-Russian relationship, we might have persuaded President Putin to prevent his travel to Moscow in the first place. As it is, we have a lot of important business to transact with Russia and we should not let aberrant incidents like the Snowden matter get in the way.
Of course, the Russian government really doesn’t want Snowden to stay. Those allowing him to travel from Hong Kong to Moscow without a passport seem to have assumed that they could obtain whatever information he had and then another country would offer him asylum. The Russians most probably did not anticipate that he would be unable to travel promptly to some other country with a leader stupid enough to give him “asylum.” (That’s not the kind of asylum he deserves!)
Many other questions arise at this point. I may address some of them in the days ahead.