When Edward Snowden announced to the world that he would stay in Hong Kong despite the looming threat of a U.S. extradition request, he explained that he trusted its reputation for rule of law and free speech, the same values he wished to promote in leaking information about classified U.S. surveillance programs. "My intention is to ask the courts and the people of Hong Kong to decide my fate," he said. "I have been given no reason to doubt your system."
That didn't really work out. On Sunday, Snowden fled to Russia and may ultimately be bound for Ecuador by way of Cuba. That Snowden would switch strategies from throwing himself at the mercy of Hong Kong's court system to seeking shelter with some of the world's more authoritarian governments is a sign of how serious his dilemma has become. It's a story of idealism giving way to self-preservation, but also of a young man who wanted to challenge state abuses getting swept up in geopolitics much larger than himself – and ending up an ally of governments that embody everything he wanted to fight with his initial leaks.
The trouble seemed to start for Snowden when he realized that if he stayed in Hong Kong, he could indeed face extradition to the United States on espionage charges. Even if he did win the right to political asylum, his case might have taken years – during which time he could have faced prison time and would likely have lost access to the computer that was so important to him. "If you were to deprive him of his computer, that would be totally intolerable," a lawyer he retained told the New York Times. That lawyer also told the Financial Times, "He is a kid. I don’t think he anticipated that this would be such a big matter."
Snowden learned the hard way that asylum cases do not always rest on simple ethical questions as to whether or not the host government sympathizes with the asylum-seeker. More often, they are grueling, years-long trials in which the accused must typically demonstrate that his government is seeking him primarily for his political opinion rather than his violation of U.S. law. That's not an impossible case to make – he might have argued that U.S.'s treatment of Bradley Manning, a previous leaker, could be seen as rising to the level of political persecution – but it's not an easy one, given that Snowden broke U.S. law his own admission.
"These cases come up very frequently where you say, is this persecution for political opinion or is this prosecution for commission of a crime," Karen Musalo, an expert on international and comparative asylum law who teaches at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, told me last week. "Really good lawyers with a lot of integrity could argue both sides with credibility."
The fact that Hong Kong maintains positive ties with Washington and is rightly proud of its robust legal system, which stands in stark contrast to mainland China's and like the U.S.'s is rooted in English common law, would have made it politically difficult for it to imply that the United States could not be trusted to grant Snowden a fair trial. The same goes for Iceland, where, even if Snowden were able to secure passage, asylum would be possible but likely hard-won.
But there is another path to asylum, an alternative to a risky and protracted legal battle: the geopolitical route. “Although it should not be perceived this way, a grant of asylum to an individual from Country X is seen sometimes as an indictment of Country X,” Musalo explained. Asylum is supposed to be a legal process, but sometimes foreign policy supersedes. The United States does this, occasionally granting asylum to high-profile Chinese dissidents without forcing them through the trials that most asylum-seekers endure, an implicit criticism of China's human rights record.
A week before Snowden had named either Ecuador or Russia as potential havens, Musalo asked me rhetorically, "What country wants to stand up to the U.S.?” Snowden may have found the answer.
Russia and Ecuador would both have reasons for wanting to aid Snowden, but it's difficult to imagine that these include sympathy with his cause. If anything, their motives seem more likely to run directly counter to Snowden's, even if they share the same goal of securing his personal safety. As Committee to Protect Journalists editorial director Bill Sweeney put it in a blog post on Snowden's would-be havens, his travels "trace a path of government hypocrisy."
Moscow has previously deflected U.S. criticism of Russian human rights abuses by holding up what they see as proof that America is no better. When Congress passed a law punishing Russian officials they believed were complicit in the death of Sergei Magnitsky – a whistleblower and anti-corruption activist whom Snowden would likely see as a fellow traveler – Moscow responded by banning America's "dangerous" families from adopting Russian orphans.
Ecuador, for its part, last year sheltered Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy. The country's government, though democratic, increasingly champions a combination of anti-American nationalism and political restrictions. President Rafael Correa’s warnings that his country is under constant threat of pernicious American "imperialism" have allowed him both to rally his supporters around the cause of nationalism and provided a handy rationale for targeting critical journalists, including with criminal prosecutions, and purging political opponents.
By sheltering Assange and possibly Snowden, infuriating the United States in the process, Correa bolsters his image as a national champion standing up to the Americans as well as his case for vigilance against the imperialist threat, including in the independent media he has painted as pro-Washington. Snowden, wittingly or not, could risk granting Correa's crackdowns some political cover by accepting asylum there.
It's difficult to imagine that Snowden or Assange earnestly support Correa's treatment of journalists or his ideology, much less the far worse abuses of Vladimir Putin's Russia. And it's not hard to see why someone might prefer asylum with a troubled Latin American democracy to risking life in a jail cell. But it's difficult to escape the irony of these two high-profile activists, who got themselves wanted by the United States for leaks they say expose U.S. abuses, now allying themselves with governments infamous for abuses that are by any reasonable metric far more egregious.
That doesn't obviate the content of Snowden's leaks, of course, or the importance of his professed cause. But it does suggest that, when ideology came into conflict with self-interest, Snowden chose the latter even at some cost the former. Fairly or unfairly, that may worsen suspicions that some of Snowden's leaks – particularly those revealing U.S. spying on China and Hong Kong, made as those governments decided whether to shelter him – may have crossed a line from whistle-blowing to something else. It's a reminder that the world is not divided as neatly between good guys and bad guys, between spies and whistleblowers as we might sometimes think.