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Monday, March 10, 2014
- Late on Monday night, Sarah Harrison, a Wikileaks activist, hand-delivered 21 letters to Kim Shevchenko, the duty officer at the Russian consulate office in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, on behalf of Edward Snowden, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower.
The letters that Harrison delivered were requests for asylum addressed to embassy officials of the following countries: Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela.
“Although I am convicted of nothing, [the U.S. government] has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person,” Snowden wrote in a statement for the public that was posted on the Wikileaks website. “Without any judicial order, the administration now seeks to stop me exercising a basic right. A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum.”
Washington is furious because Snowden has released dozens of top secret documents that prove that the U.S. government has been tapping global internet and phone systems on a massive scale. As many as one trillion documents have been intercepted under one scheme – codenamed “ShellTrumpet.” Other secret projects include “Prism” which allows the NSA to harvest information on ordinary citizens from servers belonging to companies like Google and Facebook.
Snowden coordinated the releases from a hotel in Hong Kong in late May, working principally with two U.S. reporters – Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras – and the Guardian newspaper in the UK. Der Spiegel in Germany and the Washington Post in the U.S. also were given some material.
For these revelations, the 30-year-old former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) staffer – is now a wanted man. The U.S. government has charged him with espionage in a court order issued Jun. 14 and signed by John Anderson, a judge in Virginia, and canceled his U.S. passport.
Informed that the Chinese authorities would allow him to depart without hindrance, Snowden fled from Hong Kong to Moscow on Jun. 23 with Harrison’s assistance after she arrived to help him with safe passage papers issued by Fidel Narvaez, an Ecuadorean consular officer in London.
The pair, however, are now marooned in the Russian capital because Ecuador has since canceled the papers it issued to Snowden.
Snowden’s 21 letters requesting asylum reflect his perilous state, given that the U.S. government is now working the phones to ask governments around the world to prevent him from escaping to freedom.
Russia has said that it will not deport Snowden from Moscow airport, but it has also refused to grant him asylum unless he agrees to stop releasing documents.
“Russia never hands anybody over anywhere and doesn’t intend to do so. If he wants to go somewhere and somebody will host him – no problem,” Putin said at a news conference in Moscow. “If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his work aimed at harming our American partners.”
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has also backed away from helping Snowden after he got a personal call from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Correa now says that Narvaez had made a mistake in giving Snowden papers.
“The consul, in his desperation, issued a safe conduct document without validity, without authorisation, without us even knowing,” Correa told the Guardian newspaper. “It was a mistake on our part.”
Snowden’s top hope is now Venezuela, which has expressed an interest in him. “If this young man is punished, nobody in the world will ever dare to tell the truth,” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has told the media, hinting strongly that his government would offer Snowden asylum.
By coincidence, Maduro is in Moscow attending talks on oil and gas. In theory he could whisk Snowden away to safety on his presidential jet.
While Snowden is living in limbo, he has not arrived at this extraordinary situation without some forethought.
The computer programmer, who has never attended college, previously worked for the CIA in Geneva where he first became troubled by the NSA’s massive dragnet for global communications and decided to do something about it.
Several months ago Snowden applied for a job as an “infrastructure analyst” with Booz Allen Hamilton, a Virginia intelligence contractor, in order to acquire documents to prove what the NSA was doing. He was hired by the company in March at a salary of 122,000 dollars a year at an NSA station in Hawaii until late May when he left for Hong Kong.
“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” Snowden told the South China Morning Post.
Most significantly he found evidence that the NSA was storing huge quantities of data for as much as five years under a secret interpretation of the law. Armed with these documents, he left for Hong Kong on May 20 after telling his supervisor that he had to get medical assistance for epilepsy.
While Snowden now faces an uncertain future, he says he remains “unbowed” in his convictions and that he placed his trust in his supporters to fight back against the NSA and the White House.
“The Obama administration is not afraid of whistleblowers like me, Bradley Manning or Thomas Drake. We are stateless, imprisoned, or powerless,” Snowden wrote in his statement issued last night. “No, the Obama administration is afraid of you. It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised – and it should be.”