Asylum for NSA leaker Edward Snowden a challenge to U.S.-Russia relations

Russia's decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum sparked outrage in Washington. Correspondent Isabel Gorst explains why Russia did it. (The Washington Post)

Russia has granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose leaks have resulted in a controversy over the government’s digital surveillance practices. Snowden left Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for the first time since his arrival there June 23 and officially entered Russian territory. The Kremlin’s decision to grant him asylum will further strain relations with the United States, where Snowden is wanted on charges relating to the leaks:

Obama administration officials denounced the decision to protect Snowden and hinted of repercussions, perhaps including the cancellation of a planned summit between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Reaction from Congress was far harsher, with key lawmakers from both sides calling for a fundamental rethinking of relations with Moscow.

“Russia has stabbed us in the back,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife.”

For Snowden, 30, the asylum decision was a reprieve from extradition and the prospect of a trial in the United States. But his refu­gee status opens the possibility of direct meetings between him and U.S. officials to discuss the treatment he could face if he returned home voluntarily.

The former technical contractor and admitted leaker of NSA documents has signaled that he intends to stay. One of his attorneys said Snowden has discussed taking language classes and perhaps finding work in Russia, a country that has a history of harshly repressing its government critics as well as a record of mistreating other U.S. citizens who have sought asylum there.

Indeed, one of the few bright spots for U.S. officials was that Snowden’s behavior — including his ability to release additional secrets — is certain to be tightly controlled by his new hosts, in contrast with the freedoms he may have had in one of the Latin American countries that offered him asylum, former U.S. officials and Russia experts said.

“He will likely live under very restricted conditions with a lot of surveillance,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russian and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “If he steps out of line, Putin will crush him like a bug.”

Isabel Gorst and Joby Warrick

Snowden’s status in Russia is temporary. He could seek permanent political asylum or refu­gee status for three years, but his options are limited:

Given that it took Snowden this long just to get out of the airport, he might reasonably be concerned about whether 12 months will give him enough time to either flee to another country or secure a more permanent status in Russia. Under Russian law, as ably explained by Radio Free Europe’s Tom Balmforth last week, Snowden has three potential paths to shelter in Russia, only one of which offers permanent asylum. The other two are temporary. Barring some high-level political intervention – which is surely possible, though hardly guaranteed given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s past comments on the matter – none of Snowden’s options looks especially promising. . . .

Radio Free Europe found only 14 people in the past five years who had applied for political asylum in Russia — and none of them appeared to have been successful. That may be in large part because winning political asylum requires a presidential decree. . . .

Radio Free Europe examined official Russian government statistics and found that, between January 2007 and April 2012, 12,500 people applied for refugee status but only 961 got it – a success rate of just 7 percent. That’s down significantly from earlier years, when the rate was around one-in-three.

Max Fisher

Many lawmakers, Democrats as well as Republicans, worry that surveillance has become too intrusive and lacks effective oversight, though the leadership of both parties supports the programs. Democrats met with President Obama on Thursday to discuss their differences of opinion:

Among them were Democratic Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.), the lawmaker who earlier Thursday proposed legislation that would, in addition to other measures, add a privacy and civil liberties advocate to the secret court proceedings when the government requests national security warrants.

Now government lawyers make the case for warrants before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has turned down only 11 of the government’s nearly 34,000 warrant requests over the past three decades.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, suggested that the Obama administration supports the proposal, although White House officials declined to take a position publicly.

“We’re in conversation with members of Congress about various ideas and will continue to do that,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday. “As the president has said, [we will] continue to take steps to improve the effectiveness of these programs, working with Congress.”

A former constitutional law lecturer, Obama came to office pledging to ensure that his national security policies complied not only with the law but also with what he called American traditions that respect human rights and civil liberties. But his record has been mixed, as he acknowledged in a May speech at the National Defense University, and many supporters have expressed concern, particularly about his expansion of surveillance programs started during the George W. Bush administration.

The widespread uneasiness on the left was underscored last week during the House vote on whether to defund the NSA’s phone record collection program.

Much was made of the fact that nearly half of Republicans were in favor of the measure, despite a tradition in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era of supporting such programs. It is perhaps equally notable that 111 of 194 House Democrats backed the measure, defying the Obama administration in doing so.

Aaron Blake and Scott Wilson

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) has also proposed legislation on the issue. In an interview, he explained that his goal is to repeal the legal basis for the government’s surveillance programs:

What led up to the Patriot Act, in 2001, was a very dramatic change in American surveillance law and practice. The practice changed before the law changed. The FISA Amendments Act was brought forward under the law [to provide a legal basis for] activities that were already under way. To say repealing them is a dramatic change in U.S. intelligence law, I would say, well no, it is undoing the dramatic change that occurred in our moment of fear.

The changes made in 2001 were not right. There clearly was a reminder of what most of us already knew: that there are terrorists and would-be terrorists out there who would do Americans harm, and we have to protect against them. But the Patriot Act, with all of its provisions, Patriot and successor reauthorizations that allow sneak-and-peek searches and allow [the government] to issue administrative subpoenas that should come from a judge, and allow them to surveil people in all sorts of intrusive ways, they were passed because a majority of members of Congress suspected in the days after September 11, 2001, that there were terrorist cells in every city in America. We’d just heard there were hijackers in Florida and Maine and in Newark, and it made it sound as if they were everywhere. That they had infiltrated our society in every state and county. That turns out not to be true. But there was this rampant fear in Congress that that was happening. And there was a real over-reaction.

Timothy Lee

For past coverage of Edward Snowden and U.S. digital surveillance, continue reading here .

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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