By Trudy Rubin
The global hunt for Edward Snowden is damaging U.S. interests in ways that go far beyond the intelligence data he leaked.
The wild flight of the fugitive leaker – from Hong Kong to the transit area of Moscow’s Sherymetyvo Airport, and perhaps on to Ecuador – has turned into a public humiliation for the White House. U.S. officials publicly threatened “consequences” if Snowden wasn’t returned, only to be openly rebuffed by Chinese officials and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. This made embarrassingly clear how little leverage President Barack Obama has in Moscow or Beijing (and how much wiser it would have been to request Snowden’s return in private).
Most disturbing, the Snowden affair has enabled some of the world’s worst human rights offenders to portray themselves as champions of freedom by defending Snowden while denouncing America as a massive violator of rights.
So let’s look at the records of the countries that are offering Snowden the greatest support.
For starters, there is something bizarre about the list. While Snowden claims to be defending personal freedoms, he has sought shelter from egregious violators of human rights, including China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador.
Beijing is obviously delighted that it can fend off U.S. complaints by claiming America does likewise. Such charges are bogus – and they know it. Whatever your opinion about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the fact is that Congress OK’d them and set up special courts to monitor them.
In China, no Congress or courts govern surveillance nor can Chinese citizens oppose it.
Then there’s Russia, where the state controls all major newspapers and national TV networks, which are still the major news source for the bulk of the population. Journalists are beaten up or murdered, and the perpetrators, conveniently, are never found. Political dissenters are cowed, arrested, or driven into exile.
So when Putin praises Snowden as a “human rights activist” who “struggles for freedom of information,” it’s hard not to gag.
Snowden’s final destination – possibly Ecuador via Venezuela – is equally odd for a defender of freedom. As pointed out by Bill Sweeney, editorial director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Venezuela has shut down independent broadcasters via a system of politicized regulations.
As for Ecuador, its populist president, Rafael Correa, has criminalized reporting that is critical of his government – and prosecuted journalists who attempt it.
That brings us to the heart of the matter. Snowden’s saviors have seized a delicious opportunity to deflect U.S. criticism of their own cyberattacks and rights violations by branding the United States as the real sinner.
So, critics of American hubris may cheer when Putin praises Snowden – or when the People’s Daily proclaims that Snowden “tore off Washington’s sanctimonious mask.” It’s necessary to remind them: The countries helping Snowden aren’t doing so because they dislike spying. On the contrary. They don’t want limits on their own surveillance, just on ours.
TRUDY RUBIN is a columnist and editorial–board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubinphillynews.com.