As Edward Snowden's quest for political asylum plays out as a global cat-and-mouse chase, defenders of international law say the US is acting the bully as it scrambles to locate and gain custody of the 30-year-old NSA whistleblower.
Though his whereabouts remained unknown Monday, supporters of Snowden say that the US government's aggressive pursuit of the confessed NSA whistleblower—and the mainstream media's fixation on him and not the information he has delivered to the global public regarding a "massive worldwide surveillance system"—is what should most trouble those concerned about privacy, international law and civil liberties.
"The US is doing everything they can do to interfere with [Snowden's effort to gain asylum]," said Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a lawyer with expertise in international law, during a press call with journalists on Monday. "They're bullying countries all over the world, even where they have no basis for doing so… Bullying them essentially so that they can get Ed Snowden rendered to the United States where he can be prosecuted."
Pushing back against government statements characterizing Snowden as a "criminal" "traitor" or "fugitive of justice," Ratner said the whistleblower "is not a fugitive in any sense of the word" and that there is "an important and legal basis for Ed Snowden's application for asylum" abroad.
Responding to comments made by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the White House warning others countries to hand over Snowden, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange blasted the Obama administration's response to the situation.
"The US secretary of state is wrong in law," said Assange. He added, "The Obama administration was not given a mandate by the people of the US to hack and spy upon the entire world, to abridge the US constitution or the laws of others nations."
"It reflects poorly on the U.S. administration, and no self-respecting country would submit to such interference or such bullying by the U.S. in this matter," he said.
Though many in the corporate US news media have been quick to follow the US government's line that Snowden should be considered a "traitor" for his release of documents that expose details of the NSA's vast spying apparatus to the US and global public, Ratner said that Snowden's actions were underpinned by a clear political motive and are therefore protected under international law.
Ratner stressed that when it comes to international law, "asylum trumps extradition" meaning that even if Russia, Ecuador, or other nations have a bilateral extradition agreement for criminal offenders, it does not necessarily mean that those countries are obligated to hand over a person seeking political asylum, especially one who has reasonable fear he will not be treated equitably or fairly by his home country's justice system.
"There's no international arrest warrant that we know of," said Ratner, arguing that Snowden's alleged crimes "are classic political crimes under the extradition treaty" and that the US' efforts should be seen as a large, powerful saying to other countries 'Send him here' when, in fact, there's "no legal basis for it."
The ongoing and aggressive attempt to extradite Snowden, added Assange, "further demonstrates the breakdown in the rule of law by the Obama administration."
Under the United Nations' Refugee Convention, Snowden would qualify for protection as someone who fears "being persecuted for political opinion," said Ratner.
From a press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam on Monday, Ecuador's foreign minister Ricardo Patino read from Snowden's asylum application letter in which Snowden himself discussed why we was taking such lengths to avoid US authorities.
"I have been accused of being a traitor" and "there have been calls for me to be executed or imprisoned," the letter from Snowden said. In addition, he said it would be "unlikely" that he would receive "a fair trial or humane treatment" if returned to the US.
Because the US is charging Snowden under the Espionage Act, says law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law's Marjorie Cohn, Snowden has "a well-founded fear of persecution in the US."
And citing the treatment of another well-known whistleblower, Pfc. Bradley Manning, Cohn suggests Snowden can "probably make a good case for political asylum in Ecuador."
Norman Solomon, whose group Roots Action is circulating a petition calling the Obama administration to keep its "hands off" Snowden, decried the diplomatic bullying described by Ratner and others.
"The same government that continues to expand its invasive dragnet of surveillance, all over the United States and the rest of the world," Solomon wrote on Common Dreams, "is now asserting its prerogative to drag Snowden back to the USA from anywhere on the planet. It’s not only about punishing him and discouraging other potential whistleblowers. Top U.S. officials are also determined to—quite literally—silence Snowden’s voice, as Bradley Manning’s voice has been nearly silenced behind prison walls."
He continued, “Those at the top of the U.S. government insist that Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning have betrayed it. But that’s backward. Putting its money on vast secrecy and military violence instead of democracy, the government has betrayed Snowden and Manning and the rest of us.”
In addition to the petition effort by Roots Action, more than 113,000 people as of Monday afternoon had signed a petition on the White House website calling for President Obama to pardon Snowden.
"Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs," the petition read.
Though the petition received a large enough number of signers to mandate an official response from the White House, the president is not likely to heed its urging.
That leaves Ecuador the most likely candidate candidate to offer asylum to Snowden, though its been reported that he's considering applications for other countries as well.
Mark Weisbrot, an expert on Latin America and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, was pointed in why supporters of the public's right to know should support both Snowden and the country—whether Ecuador or another—if and when they grant Snowden political asylum.
“It is important that everyone who believes in freedom to defend Ecuador from Washington’s threats, which are very likely if the Ecuadorean government grants asylum to Snowden," said Weisbrot. "Other governments around the world – whose citizens’ rights have been violated by NSA surveillance overreach – should stand behind Ecuador if it chooses to grant Snowden asylum, as should NGO’s. To charge Snowden with espionage is a severe form of political persecution."
In the end, while the intrigue over Snowden's whereabouts and the question over whether or not he is captured by the US or receives safe passage to a country willing to protect him, Ratner was among the many commentators in the progressive community on Monday who were concerned that the focus on Snowden as an individual was partially thwarting the bigger and more important story about the contents of what Snowden's actions have revealed.
"What we should be discussing, unlike what seems the attention primarily in the media right now—Where's Ed Snowden? What country is he going to?—is the massive surveillance system being carried out by the US, the UK, and perhaps other countries all over the world and the violations of rights of people all over the world," Ratner said.
Ratner blasted the media's fixation on Snowden—his whereabouts, whether he's a "traitor" or not, and other aspects of his personal life that were a distraction to the real story which according to Ratner is the existence of a "massive worldwide surveillance system."
And as Solomon concluded:
Top policymakers in Washington seem bent on running as much of the world as possible. Their pursuit of Edward Snowden has evolved into a frenzied rage.
Those at the top of the U.S. government insist that Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning have betrayed it. But that’s backward. Putting its money on vast secrecy and military violence instead of democracy, the government has betrayed Snowden and Manning and the rest of us.