National Security whistle blower Edward Snowden left Hong Kong today and reportedly met with an Ecuador ambassador at an airport in Moscow to seek asylum. I've yet to see anything concrete, but the feeling is that Hong Kong let Snowden leave because they weren't going to extradite him to the United States.
Ecuador's extradition treaty with the United States doesn't cover political crimes.
I don't remember who said this on my political Twitter list last night, but someone criticized the Department of Justice for charging Snowden with espionage, which is inherently a political crime, when Hong Kong is free to refuse extradition requests that involve political crimes. It's possible that the specific charges made by the Obama administration contributed to Snowden's ability to leave Hong Kong so quickly. And given how some other recent cases have shaken out, the espionage charges may end up being dropped in favor of a plea on the theft of government documents charge, if Snowden is ever brought back to the United States
Trials in absentia are unconstitutional in the United States if the defendant is not present for the beginning of the proceedings.
There are reports that Snowden could end up in Venezuela or Cuba, although Cuba seems like a stretch.
Note: By the time I finished writing this story, Ecuador's Foreign Minister announced that his government has received a request for asylum from Edward Snowden.
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To address an issue or two, many people have argued that what Edward Snowden did is nothing like what Daniel Ellsberg did, a person who is generally revered today but was called a traitor -- just like Snowden -- and charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 12 times, potentially facing over 100 years in prison. In retaliation for what Ellsberg did, the FBI illegally wiretapped his phone calls, and G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt and three Central Intelligence Agency officers broke into Lewis Fielding's office, Ellsberg's psychiatrist. The five later plotted to break into Fielding's home.
Jonathan Capehart wrote in the Washington Post "Enough with the breathless comparisons. Edward Snowden is no Daniel Ellsberg", while Ellsberg himself has called Snowden's work "as important as any disclosure that's ever been made."
Any belief that such rampant law breaking is in the distant past has not paid attention to what the government has been caught doing in the years since the Pentagon Papers. Laws passed by Congress after Watergate to prevent the FBI and CIA from being used to spy on Americans were mostly diluted or repealed via the USA PATRIOT Act, and civil liberties protections substantially weakened further with the passage of the Protect America Act of 2007 and FISA Amendments Act of 2008.
Ronald Reagan was caught selling weapons to Iran in direct contravention of federal law, as an impeachment-worthy offense as this country has seen in the last 50 years. George W. Bush was caught using the NSA to eavesdrop on global and domestic Internet communications via a secret room in an AT&T transit facility in San Francisco, without even an order from the rubber-stamp Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves over 99% of all requests and didn't deny a single request in all of 2010.
Much of recent U.S. Government history is a record of law breaking and violations of the Constitution.
If there are significant differences between Ellsberg and Snowden, it's that Snowden faces a US Government that is substantially more authoritarian and hostile to press freedoms and civil liberties that any that came before it. For the first time in history, the United States is assassinating its own citizens living abroad who are unarmed and far away from any battlefield, without charges, a trial, or even a public display of evidence. A government which has claimed the power to indefinitely detain citizens in military prisons without charges or access to lawyers, a practice which has already been tried multiple times. A country which has committed war crimes that have resulted prisoners being tortured to death and then swept those crimes under the rug. Many high ranking administration officials and elected politicians have already publicly declared Sowden guilty of treason, dispensing any quaint notion that this country might have once had that people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
The FBI and CIA breaking into offices and homes and illegally listening to phone calls actually seems benign in comparison to all of that. No longer does the U.S. Government only try to frame you or dig up dirt on you, it will throw you in prison without a lawyer or simply kill you with a drone, and then claim that it can't share its legal justification for these enormously controversial actions because it would endanger the national security state.
When Daniel Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, he faced the threat of life in prison after receiving a trial where he could defend himself, in an age when Congress would stand up to executive overreach and defend civil liberties. Today, like Snowden, he could credibly face the threat of indefinite detention in a military prison or even assassination.
I actually agree with Jonathan Capehart, Edward Snowden is no Daniel Ellsberg. No insult intended towards Ellsberg here, but Snowden, knowing fully the frightening new the capabilities of the national security state, is far more brave and selfless than Ellsberg or any other whistle blower in American history. Edward Snowden spoke truth to power when standing up to the government on national security could conceivably get him killed.
That is the difference between Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden. Snowden set a new high bar for blowing the whistle on government wrongdoing where the death is the ultimate result.
Self sacrifice is the ultimate act of patriotism. Nathan Hale understood that, and so does Edward Snowden. In an age when no other country or enemy can credibly threaten the security of the United States, the ultimate threat lay within. Osama bin Laden killed over 3,000 people and supposedly did it because "they hate our freedom". Now people like Snowden are fighting our own government to protect the freedoms that people like bin Laden could never touch. Bin Laden couldn't shred the fourth amendment the way the Obama and Bush administration have. He couldn't end due process and the right to a fair trial.
Those with the most power must be held to the highest standards. If breaking disclosure laws is how we get there, then what does that say about disclosure laws? If a patriot risks his life to reveal government wrongdoing, what does that say about the actions and laws that puts his or her life in danger to begin with?
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Many shallow critics of Ed Snowden have criticized him for not "going through proper channels" if he truly believed what the NSA was doing was unconstitutional. If anything, that's an indictment to how ignorant most Americans are of what their government has done to whistle blowers in the past.
After witnessing what he believed to be significant crimes committed by the National Security Agency, Thomas Drake contacted a staffer for the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who with three former NSA officers filed a complaint with the Department of Defense Inspector General, which went nowhere. She then contacted Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Vice President Dick Cheney, and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (CIA Director, 2004-2006) to no avail.
They were ignored at every level of government and then Drake was prosecuted by the Department of Justice after he finally went to the press.
Update 2:59p EST
WikiLeaks says that Snowden was moving from Hong Kong to Russia on his way to Ecuador, and that he's being escorted by legal representatives of Wikileaks.
Hong Kong released a statement on Edward Snowden leaving its territory.