When one speaks of political asylum, the name that springs to mind first is probably Edward Snowden. A former contractor for the United States National Security Agency, he has stumbled upon things that he thought could not be kept under wraps. In 2013 Snowden downloaded a whole heap of highly classified data and shared it with the world, although he wasn’t even supposed to access the information itself. The giant can of worms was opened, polarizing officials and public on issues of surveillance, privacy and security. The majority praised the whistleblower, saying that his actions were justified as they brought to light blatant disregard of American intelligence agencies for privacy of personal information, which may now lead to a change in global politics.
Thankfully for Snowden, he did not reveal his findings until fleeing the United States. In May of 2013, he was permitted temporary leave from his post at the Hawaii offices of the NSA, and he left for Hong Kong. This is when the first batch of classified data was published, starting the ongoing global surveillance controversy and sealing Snowden’s fate. Oliver Stone, a renowned film director with outspoken political views, said in 2013:
To me Snowden is a hero because he revealed secrets that we should all know, that the United States has repeatedly violated the fourth amendment. He should be welcomed and offered asylum. But he has no place to hide because every country is intimidated by the United States.
Not everyone praised the whistleblower, of course. NSA General Keith Alexander condemned his actions:
[Snowden] betrayed the trust and confidence we had in him. This was an individual with top secret clearance whose duty it was to administer these networks. He betrayed that confidence and stole some of our secrets.
Snowden immediately became a wanted man in the United States. He could not stay in Hong Kong for much longer, and left for Latin America via Moscow. The US government did their best to prevent the whistleblower from gaining political asylum – they cancelled his passport during the flight to Moscow and pressured governments who might have offered him help. Eventually Snowden was offered one year asylum in Russia, followed by a three year extension. He remains somewhere in Russia to this day, safe from the American intelligence agencies.
Following the initial leaks, and more classified NSA information which followed, the popular opinion outside of the US government became cemented in the view that Snowden’s actions have paved the way to a better tomorrow. Shami Chakrabarti, director of the British civil liberties advocacy organization and chancellor of the University of Essex penned an opinion piece in The Guardian this year:
So let me be completely clear: Edward Snowden is a hero. Saying so does not make me an apologist for terror – it makes me a firm believer in democracy and the rule of law. … the people and our representatives should know about capabilities and practices built and conducted in our name.
At this time Snowden remains in temporary asylum in Russia, persecuted in his home country. At the same time, international support for the whistleblower is growing. Just this week the European Parliament adopted a resolution, which called for the EU states to end persecution of Edward Snowden. Whether any actions will be taken by constituent states remains to be seen, although his return to the United States as a free man is as cloudy as ever.