What if Edward Snowden had stayed to fight his corner?

Out of America: The CIA whistleblower struck a blow for us all, but his 1970s predecessor showed how to win

Related Topics

So what seemed increasingly likely has now come to pass. Trapped in transit limbo at a Moscow airport, Edward Snowden found himself last week with no alternative but to accept asylum in Russia. The arrangement is "temporary" but there's a fair chance he's in the land of Pushkin and Putin for the duration. And that's bad news for him and for his supporters – among whom I include myself.

Historically, American refugees to Russia have had a pretty miserable time. In Stalin's day, many of those who came for idealistic reasons were suspected of being spies, sent to the gulag, and even executed. Later defectors, such as Lee Harvey Oswald or the spy Edward Lee Howard, didn't risk their lives but they couldn't acclimatise; the socialist paradise simply wasn't as billed. One must hope Mr Snowden finds the transition easier.

His current whereabouts is even more depressing for those of us who believe he did his country a service by revealing the extent of the National Security Agency's snooping on American citizens (and the rest of us, for that matter). He could have been a martyr, staying to face the music. Instead, he ended up in the country to which, traditionally, traitors go.

If only he had done an Ellsberg. Daniel Ellsberg, you will recall, was the Snowden of his day: the one-time Department of Defense analyst who, in 1971, leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret official history of the Vietnam War which showed how successive administrations had repeatedly lied about the progress (or, rather, the lack of it) being made by the US.

The Nixon administration threw the book at him, Espionage Act and all, just as the Obama administration did against the hapless Wikileaker Bradley Manning (and would undoubtedly do against Mr Snowden.) But Mr Ellsberg didn't run. He turned himself in to federal prosecutors in Massachusetts, admitting that he was the leaker. His words ring as nobly now as they did then: "I felt that as a … responsible citizen, I could no longer co-operate in concealing this information from the American public," he explained. "I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision."

I do not pretend to know Mr Snowden's deepest motives, or his calculations about asylum, but he surely would have been better off in Hawaii. Yes, he would have faced the full and vengeful wrath of American law and the risk of a lengthy jail term. Last week, Private Manning was acquitted of the most serious charge against him, of aiding the enemy, but could face decades behind bars.

But Mr Ellsberg faced a theoretical 115 years in prison. In the event, his case, which laid bare Watergate- related criminality, backfired disastrously against Nixon's administration. Acquitted on all charges, Daniel Ellsberg remains a hero to the civil liberties movement.

I'm not saying the NSA affair contains the seeds of another Watergate scandal; merely that Mr Snowden's moral standing would be greater had he stayed to face the consequences, instead of taking refuge in a country noted for corruption, autocracy and a disdain for human rights and the rule of law.

Even so, every poll shows Americans more or less evenly split over whether Mr Snowden did right or wrong; if anything, the trend today is in his favour. On Capitol Hill the former intelligence contractor may be lambasted as a coward and traitor, but the NSA excesses that he exposed are causing ever more concern.

Last week, President Obama met with leading Senators to allay their concerns, and a few days earlier a motion in the House of Representatives to cut funding for the Agency's most controversial programmes was defeated by the narrowest of margins. And this in a chamber controlled by Republicans who, even before 9/11, tended to put national security above every other earthly good.

Adding to the unease has been the zeal with which the Obama administration has gone after leakers, with a Fox reporter who was merely doing his job being labelled a "co-conspirator" by the Justice Department for revealing less-than-earth-shattering material about North Korea from a State Department contact.

And all this after the recent history of lying by NSA officials during testimony on Capitol Hill over the extent of the agency's operations, amid a growing awareness of the sham of Congressional oversight, whereby a tiny number of legislators are vouchsafed part of the truth on the condition they can't breathe a word about it. It now seems likely the agency's powers will be curbed, or at least more tightly controlled.

In the meantime, we ordinary mortals must make do with ritual statements from intelligence chiefs about the "irreparable harm" caused by the likes of Mr Snowden and Private Manning, and the dozens of (usually unspecified) terrorist plots thwarted by NSA eavesdroppers.

Alarmingly, the US has been here before, during the post-Watergate investigation by Senator Frank Church of Idaho. Like Mr Ellsberg's statement, the Senator's words of shock at the NSA's unfettered operations echo down the years: "That capability at any time could be turned on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left." If a dictator took over, he warned, the NSA "could enable [him] to impose total tyranny … the abyss from which there is no return."

Edward Snowden could have been a champion for the ages against an overweening, over-intrusive state. He might yet be. But he comes across as a muddled young man, in way over his head, who may have involuntarily provided precious information to the Russians, no slouches where spying is concerned.

"I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American," Mr Snowden has said. So, more or less, did Daniel Ellsberg. But America's martyrs aren't made in Moscow.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Election catch-up: Blairites for and against a Miliband victory

John Rentoul
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in debt to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before