Lawyer for NSA leaker Edward Snowden hopes he will leave Moscow airport in days

A lawyer for Edward Snowden, who gave journalists secret documents describing the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations, said Wednesday that the former contractor could soon leave the Moscow airport where he has been living for weeks:

Anatoly Kucherena told the news agency Interfax he believes that Moscow could decide within a week whether to grant Snowden asylum.

“The question of giving him temporary asylum won’t take more than a week. I think that in the near future he will have the possibility to leave the Sheremetyevo transit zone,” Kucherena was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Snowden has applied for temporary asylum in Russia three weeks after arriving at a Moscow airport from Hong Kong. The United States wants him sent home to face prosecution for espionage.

Granting Snowden asylum would add new tensions to U.S.-Russian relations already strained by criticism of Russia’s pressure on opposition groups, Moscow’s suspicion of U.S. missile-defense plans and Russia’s resistance to sanctions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

How long the asylum process could take for Snowden is unclear. The Federal Migration Service is required to consider the application within three months, but could do it faster.

Snowden is believed to have spent his time since arriving in Moscow in the Sheremetyevo Airport transit zone, which is technically not Russian territory.

President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Snowden has been warned against taking any actions that would damage relations between Moscow and Washington.

Associated Press

Snowden made his application on Tuesday, putting the Russian government in a difficult position:

Russia’s Federal Migration Service has up to three months to consider Snowden’s application, an official told the Itar-Tass news agency. Temporary asylum, by law, is good for one year, but it can be extended. If granted to him, Snowden would have the right to move freely within Russia.

For the time being, though, he faces a continued stay at Shere­metyevo or a move to a government shelter for refugees, the head of the Federal Migration Service’s Public Council, Vladimir Volokh, told the Interfax news agency.

Kucherena said Snowden has no specific plans to travel onward, but President Vladimir Putin said Monday that he doesn’t expect the American to stay in Russia for long, even if granted asylum. Snowden has said that he wants to take up residence in Venezuela or one of several other Latin American countries.

Tuesday was his 23rd day in the airport transit zone, where he has been stranded since arriving on a flight from Hong Kong.

Kucherena was among a group of Russian politicians, lawyers and human rights activists who met with Snowden on Friday at the airport. Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said that she went reluctantly and that the whole episode appeared to be stage-managed. She said the question of whether Snowden had discussed what he knows with Russian intelligence agents did not come up.

After the Friday meeting, a parade of Russian politicians urged the government to grant the asylum request, in what appeared to be a Kremlin-scripted attempt to make such a move inevitable. Russia has exploited U.S. embarrassment over Snowden, but comments by Putin and others suggest that the Kremlin expects diminishing returns from a protracted stay.

Will Englund

The documents Snowden made public have resulted in an intense debate over the place of government surveillance in digital societies. Several organizations believe the documents provide them the evidence they need to file suit against the United States:

At least five cases have been filed in federal courts since the government’s widespread collection of telephone and Internet records was revealed last month. The lawsuits primarily target a program that scoops up the telephone records of millions of Americans from U.S. telecommunications companies.

Such cases face formidable obstacles. The government tends to fiercely resist them on national security grounds, and the surveillance is so secret that it’s hard to prove who was targeted. Nearly all of the roughly 70 suits filed after the George W. Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping was disclosed in 2005 have been dismissed.

But the legal landscape may be shifting, lawyers say, because the revelations by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor and the principal source of the leaks, forced the government to acknowledge the programs and discuss them. That, they say, could help plaintiffs overcome government arguments that they lack the legal standing to sue or that cases should be thrown out because the programs are state secrets. A federal judge in California last week rejected the government’s argument that an earlier lawsuit over NSA surveillance should be dismissed on secrecy grounds.

“There is one critical difference from the Bush era. We now have indisputable physical evidence that the conduct being challenged is actually taking place,’’ said Stephen Vladeck, an expert on national security law at American University law school. He said Snowden’s disclosures make it “more likely” that cases will at least be allowed to go forward in court, leading to a years-long legal battle over surveillance and privacy.

Jerry Markon

Representatives and Obama administration officials discussed the programs in a House hearing Wednesday:

The administration believes the programs “achieve the right balance” between protecting Americans’ safety and their privacy, said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

He said two programs that entail collecting telephone records and monitoring Internet communications “involve significant oversight by all three branches of government.”. . .

The official subject of the House hearing is oversight of the administration’s use of authorities under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which governs the collection of intelligence on communications between “foreign powers” and their agents, who may include U.S. citizens or permanent residents suspected of engaging in espionage or terrorism.

In prepared testimony, Jameel Jaffer and Laura W. Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union, a leading critic of the surveillance programs, charged that the National Security Agency has “engaged in far-reaching, intrusive and unlawful surveillance of Americans’ telephone calls and electronic communications.”

Calling the NSA activities “a grave danger to American democracy,” they charged: “Excessive secrecy has made congressional oversight difficult and public oversight impossible. Intelligence officials have repeatedly misled the public, Congress and the courts about the nature and scope of the government‘s surveillance activities.”

Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, told the committee in prepared testimony that the programs and the secrecy surrounding them “pose unprecedented threats to First and Fourth Amendment liberties” as well as “a significant and perhaps unprecedented challenge to our system of constitutional checks and balances.”

But Stewart Baker, a former NSA general counsel, said he fears a repetition of some of the same mistakes that were made before Sept. 11, 2011, when “civil liberties criticism” forced the FISA court to restrict the government’s use of information from NSA surveillance, imposing a “ ‘wall’ between law enforcement and intelligence.”

William Branigin

Overseas, Europeans have been critical of their governments for their perceived collaboration with the U.S. programs:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel grew up in a society where the government kept a Big Brother eye on its citizens. Now, critics say, she has assented to similar practices — this time coming from the United States, not East Germany’s fearsome secret police.

Revelations about U.S. surveillance around the world shocked many Europeans when details were leaked by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency. Now critics are questioning their own leaders about whether they were complicit in monitoring a wide swath of Internet and phone traffic, and nowhere has the anger been fiercer than in Germany, where citizens guard their personal information far more jealously than do their American peers.

With Merkel campaigning for a third term in September polls, the American surveillance and allegations of German complicity have rapidly emerged as a central campaign issue, and the German leader has gone on a media blitz in recent days to assure voters that she was fighting for their rights. On Tuesday, she hardened her rhetoric, raising the possibility of prosecuting anyone who has broken German privacy laws.

“I want to say to our American partners that on German soil, German law always applies, and we will enforce it,” Merkel said Tuesday in a speech to an industry convention in Cologne. Earlier, referring to the Ministry of State Security, the secret police agency better known as Stasi, under the former German Democratic Republic, she had said that “there is absolutely no comparison between the Stasi of the GDR and the work of intelligence agencies in democratic states.”

But critics — especially those in the opposition Social Democratic and Green parties — say that Merkel either knows more than she is saying or that she has been willfully ignorant of collusion between German intelligence agencies and their American counterparts.

Michael Birnbaum

Meanwhile, Alexandra Petri offers Edward Snowden a few suggestions for how to keep himself occupied in his remaining time at the airport:

No matter what your idea of a good time is, you can do it in an airport — or try to, as former Idaho senator Larry Craig can attest. (Unless your idea of a good time is leaving your baggage unattended, or napping stretched out on seats that do not have uncomfortable arm rests dividing them.) Airports are like malls, but with fewer teenagers from the 1980s and more haggard people who have just lost their containers of liquids. In theory, you can get all of your shopping done for the year. Between the expensive electronics, new luggage, the purveyors of giant pretzels, and the one weird store that sells only scarves and polished rocks, there is something for everyone on your list. You can view being stuck there as a hellish nightmare scenario — or a fun opportunity to get some “me” time in. . .

Sure, Anne Applebaum described the terminal as “the most soul-destroying, most angst-inducing transport hub in the world.” But remember — it’s what you make it! Now, back to that needed conversation about privacy, transparency, and security that we’ve been having.

Alexandra Petri

For the most recent coverage of Edward Snowden and the NSA, visit this page.

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