It may be years before the full cost of Edward Snowden’s intelligence leaks can be measured. But his disclosures about top-secret surveillance programs have already come at a price for the U.S. government: America’s foes have been handed an immensely powerful tool for portraying Washington as a hypocritical proponent of democratic values that it doesn’t abide by at home.
As Snowden continues his extraordinary flight from U.S. authorities, hopscotching the globe with the acquiescence of other governments, Washington’s critics have savored the irony of the world’s human rights champion being tripped up by revelations about its monitoring of phone and Internet communications.
Meanwhile, China, Russia, Cuba, and Ecuador — countries with dismal human rights records — have cast themselves as the champions of political freedom.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, confirming Tuesday that Snowden was holed up inside a secure transit zone at the airport in Moscow, said Russian authorities saw no reason to extradite him. He also jabbed at the U.S. treatment of the former NSA contractor and his new benefactor, WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange.
“Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information,” Putin said. “Ask yourself: Should such people be extradited to be jailed or not?”
U.S. officials have rejected characterizations of Snowden as a whistleblower, while defending the NSA’s surveillance programs as critical to protecting national security interests. They have also pointed out the irony in Snowden’s decision to evade arrest by traveling to Hong Kong, a Chinese territory, as well as Russia — “powerful bastions of Internet freedom,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry quipped recently.
On Tuesday, Kerry struck a more diplomatic note, saying during a stopover in Saudi Arabia that although “we are not looking for a confrontation” with Russia, the Obama administration “would hope that as a nation, as a sovereign nation, Russia would not see its interests in siding with a person who is accused of breaking the law in another nation and who is a fugitive from justice according to international standards of law.”
For many of the countries that have long bristled under Washington’s criticism of their policies, disclosure of details of the NSA’s electronic monitoring has been a golden opportunity to return the favor.
In the aftermath of revelations by The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the state-controlled China Daily published a cartoon of the Statue of Liberty, her shadow in the form of a hooded spook hoisting a recording mike in one hand and a tape recorder in the other.
“The United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber-attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age,” the state Xinhua News Agency wrote in a commentary.
In Latin America, the Snowden affair has been a political coup for America’s fiercest critics, including Venezuela, Cuba and Ecuador, where the contractor was said to have explored the possibility of asylum. Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, who has been criticized for silencing journalists, has taken up Snowden’s cause. His foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, said Snowden’s asylum request “has to do with freedom of expression and the security of citizens around the world.”
“Ecuador puts its principles above its economic interests,” he told reporters during a stop-off this week in Hanoi. “We take care of the human rights of the people.”
The Chinese and Russian governments have been more measured in their public comments. But they have been no less testy in their responses to American allegations that they had abetted Snowden’s flight.
“We consider the allegations that Russia violated U.S. laws and all but colluded with Snowden to be absolutely groundless,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday on Twitter. “We have nothing to do with Mr. Snowden or his movements around the world. He chose his route himself.”
In failing to act on the Obama administration’s extradition request, Hong Kong’s government turned the table on Washington, saying that it had officially sought “clarification” from the United States about reports of its hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong. It said it would follow up on the matter “to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong.”
The international scrutiny stirred up by the disclosures has been reminiscent of the fallout from the leaking of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks in 2010.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks, which is helping Snowden in his bid for asylum, said the spying revelations have begun to turn international opinion against the United States.
“Other countries are starting to examine how these programs touched them,” he said. “Everyone is focusing on China and Russia right now, but I would not rule out that other countries in the world, even in Western Europe, would be favorable to Mr. Snowden right now. There has to be at some point an acknowledgment that U.S. laws are not international laws and not everyone has to obey them.
“What is being revealed now in these overgrown tactics and bullying is quite interesting, and it is being observed by countries all over the world,” he added. “They are seeing an unwillingness by the United States to deal with the real issue at hand, the need to investigate and explore and critically examine the information that was revealed by Mr. Snowden and to examine evidence about whether Congress was lied to or misled.”
The revelations have also unnerved some U.S. allies. In Germany, where memories of domestic surveillance by East Germany’s Stasi state remain fresh, reaction has been mixed.
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has not pulled any punches. “America has been a different country since the horrible terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” she wrote in Der Spiegel Online. “The relationship between freedom and security has shifted, to the detriment of freedom.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among the first foreign leaders to criticize the Obama administration’s surveillance program. But her remarks have been more tempered in the ensuing days, in part, according to some observers, because Germany benefits from electronic snooping by the United States.
Anthony Faiola in London, Juan Forero in Bogota, Colombia, and Michael Birnbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.