The carefully planned journey of Edward Snowden from Hong Kong to Russia – then to Cuba possibly, before ending up in Ecuador to seek political asylum? – underscores just how many countries, big and small, are happy to have an occasion to stick it in the eye of the United States.
The US and the Obama administration in particular are quick to emphasize the importance they give to the human rights of the citizens of the countries they are dealing with. Needless to say, however, those countries don’t always take well to American lesson-giving.
With the case of Mr. Snowden – a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked details of top-secret American and British surveillance programs and who is now sought by the US on espionage charges – those countries have a chance to turn the tables on the US.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said, “I simply do not see the irony” – that countries whose human rights records are deeply questioned by international rights groups, as well as by the US, seem to be the ones most willing to aid Snowden in his flight from US justice.
China is accused of broadly limiting personal freedoms and targeting dissidents, Russia received an international black eye last year for the high-profile prosecution of members of the Pussy Riot feminist punk-rock group, and Ecuador is under fire from rights groups for a succession of laws limiting personal freedoms – including one this month that prohibits news organizations from publishing classified or confidential government documents.
As Secretary of State John Kerry quipped as he was questioned Monday about the countries on Snowden’s seeming itinerary, "I wonder if Snowden chose Russia or China for assistance because they are such bastions of Internet freedom.”
But those countries’ human rights records are “another matter,” according to Mr. Assange, the noted leaker of sensitive US diplomatic cables who has himself been living at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for more than a year to avoid extradition to Sweden.
Assange did say that “no one is suggesting that Ecuador is engaging in the kinds of abuses the US” is committing on a large scale internationally – which he said range from the Obama administration’s program to “hack and spy on everyone across the entire world” to President Obama’s “assassination program in other countries.”
The US is “trying to bully Russia and other states” into turning over a legitimate asylum seeker, Assange said, adding, “No self-respecting country would submit to ... the bullying by the US in this matter.”
Assange said Snowden is en route to Ecuador, where he expects to apply for asylum, but he declined to offer any details of Snowden’s route, other than what was already known Monday morning – that Snowden on Sunday had flown from Hong Kong to Moscow, where he was said to have remained in the airport’s transit areas.
Snowden had been expected to take a Moscow-to-Havana flight Monday, but he was not on the plane when it departed, according to numerous reports.
Snowden is still expected to make his way from Moscow to Quito, Ecuador, via Cuba and Venezuela, according to other sources – two other countries with antagonistic relations with the US that in the past have jumped at the chance to make problems for Washington.
Perhaps more surprising was Russia and China’s willingness, as some US officials saw it, to cooperate with Snowden’s efforts to evade US justice.
Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) California, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that mainland China “clearly had a role” in the Hong Kong authorities’ decision to allow Snowden to leave. “I don’t think this was just Hong Kong without Chinese acquiescence,” she said.
US officials insisted Monday that the US had done everything required under international law for foreign authorities to honor the US request for Snowden’s arrest.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday rejected the claims of Hong Kong authorities that the US extradition request for Snowden was incomplete. Instead, he said, authorities of the semiautonomous Chinese territory made “a deliberate choice ... to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant.”
Many international legal experts note that political and diplomatic considerations almost always weigh in deliberations on extradition requests and foreign arrest requests.
And how countries treat such requests also has political and diplomatic ramifications, as Secretary Kerry noted in his remarks Monday.
Speaking at a press conference in New Delhi with India’s foreign minister, Kerry said “there would be, without any question, some effect and impact on the relationship [with China or Russia] and consequences” if either or both countries are found to have aided Snowden in evading US authorities.
The US remained in dialogue with Russian officials about Snowden on Monday, Kerry said.
Mr. Carney was more blunt, saying the decision to allow Snowden to depart Hong Kong “unquestionably has a negative impact on the US-China relationship.” He said, “The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust,” adding, “We think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback.”
Concerning Russia, Carney noted the “intensified cooperation with Russia after the Boston Marathon bombings and our history of working with Russia on law enforcement matters, including returning numerous high-level criminals back to Russia at the request of the Russian government.” Given that recent cooperation, he said, “We do expect the Russian government to look at all the options available to [it] to expel Mr. Snowden back to the United States.”
In comments made after Carney spoke with journalists, Mr. Obama said Monday that the US is "following all the appropriate legal channels" to bring Snowden back to the US from Russia. US officials, he said, are working with a list of other unspecified countries to press for international application of "the rule of law" in the Snowden case.
Snowden took an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong to Moscow – something international experts say is quite unlikely to have occurred without the knowledge of Russian authorities.
Russian officials including President Vladimir Putin had been evasive when questioned recently about what Russia would do if Snowden sought transit through or even refuge in Russia.
But Russian officials – including Mr. Putin, who has come under growing criticism for perceived authoritarian tendencies from various US and international sources – may have sensed a certain satisfaction in an occasion to tweak the US for what organizations like WikiLeaks consider the persecution of a heroic whistle-blower.
And then there is China.
Chinese leaders were not thrilled last year when then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took the side of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng during a visit to Beijing. The US believes "that all governments have to answer our citizens' aspirations for dignity and the rule of law and that no nation can or should deny those rights," Ms. Clinton told her Chinese counterparts.
Mr. Chen was later allowed to leave China for study in the US.
Now might it be that China, and the other countries apparently ready to step up and assist Snowden, are seizing the opportunity for a satisfying tit for tat?