July 31, 2014 marks one year since NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was granted political asylum in Russia.
The former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor was forced to flee the US after revealing the global extent of American surveillance. Washington has accused him of espionage and stealing documents.
He had originally intended to head to South America, but US authorities withdrew his passport when he reached Russia. Twelve months down the line, Snowden’s next step is unclear. While his lawyer, Anatoli Kucherena, indicated that he has applied for an extension of his residency permit in Russia, speculation is rife about whether he intends to remain there, or if he will attempt to obtain asylum in Brazil as originally planned.
The status of Snowden’s application to stay in Russia is unknown. However, Jesselyn Radack, an American lawyer who has previously advised him, believes he is likely to remain where he is for the time being. The transcript of Radack’s interview with an Australian radio station reads:
“I know ultimately he would love to be able to come home or seek refuge in a country of his choice,” adding “But for now he is in the safest place that he can be and Russia has indicated that it intends to plan on having him, allowing him to continue to stay.”
It would seem Snowden does eventually intend to return to the US; he has asked for amnesty from prosecution for his actions if he does move back. But this in itself is problematic.
If the Obama administration decided not to prosecute Snowden, it wouldn’t be a legally-binding decision once the presidency changes hands. Put simply, a future Washington administration could still prosecute the former analyst.
“The only way that can be avoided,” said Ken Gude, intelligence expert at the Center for American Progress, “is if the president issued a pardon for his activities, then he would never face the prospect of prosecution for the actions he was specifically pardoned for. But I think in the realm of reality, a presidential pardon is not really on the table.”
Prompted largely by Snowden’s revelations, US Congress is working on changing surveillance laws. On July 29 legislation was introduced to ban the government’s mass collection of US citizens’ phone records and Internet data and limit how much information it can seek in any particular search.
In addition, latest US media reports state Snowden’s information has lost value over the past year, suggesting he has been left with few bargaining tools. Gude is quoted as saying:
“This information could be valuable for him in the negotiations with the US. But generally, he is not in a strong negotiating position, and it is totally impossible that he will receive a general amnesty.”
However, some analysts, such as defence analyst Pevel Felgenhauer, believe Snowden is still useful to Russia. “As a consultant on how the NSA works, he is very useful,” he was quoted as saying in Russian tabloid Novaya Gazeta. While political scientist Alexei Makarkin said:
“The very presence of Snowden is of symbolic importance to Russia. Snowden has become a symbol of the struggle for freedom, and that’s useful for Russia. Today, that’s one of the strongest arguments (Russia) could put to the international community.”
While the relevance of Snowden’s information is debatable, US Congressman Charlie Dent believes the seriousness of his original offence warrants his extradition.
In an interview in the German press, Dent is quoted as saying:
“Edward Snowden should be extradited to the United States. The United States has been very much embarrassed and humiliated by these disclosures, particularly in Germany. “But just as important: Edward Snowden has divulged many of the American military capabilities and has really placed a lot of our service personnel in jeopardy around the world,” the congressman added.
Any hope of the disgraced former analyst returning to the US could seem, therefore, to be dwindling. Kucherena has not commented on whether the extension to his residency permit has been accepted. However, at a forum on education the lawyer reportedly said the fugitive lived in fear for his life.
“If I had the chance to organise a meeting with him, I would,” he said. But for now the question of security is still relevant. “I know his worries, his relationship to life, his relationships with people. I know his relationship with his parents. He is a very honorable man.”
July 2013: Edward Snowden arrives in Russia, via Hong Kong. He is granted asylum for one year.
October 2013: Russia-based LifeNews publishes an image of the former agent, pushing a supermarket trolley while shopping. Kucherena confirms it is genuine.
December 2013: Russian media publishes a picture of Snowden in a red t-shirt and beige cap. He appears to be on a boat on the Moskva river, in western Russia.
January 2014: The former analyst receives online death threats, reportedly from US officials. Their identity has been withheld.
April 2014: Snowden makes a surprise appearance on a yearly question-and-answer session with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He asks Putin about the surveillance of Russia’s population.
July 2014: Snowden is believed to still be in Russia. Details of his work situation are not publically known.