When Rep. Peter King of New York yesterday referred to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as "a defector," he seemed to be channeling the political lexicon of 1983, not 2013 — much less 1984. Or maybe he was being prescient. Reports this morning indicate that Russia would consider a request by Snowden to seek asylum in that country.
The Guardian quotes Valdimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov: "If such an appeal is given, it will be considered." There's more:
Peskov's comments on potential asylum opened the floodgates on support for Snowden. Robert Shlegel, an influential MP with the ruling United Russia party, said: "That would be a good idea."
Alexey Pushkov, the head of the Duma's international affairs committee and a vocal US critic, took to Twitter to say: "By promising asylum to Snowden, Moscow has taken upon itself the protection of those persecuted for political reasons. There will be hysterics in the US. They only recognise this right for themselves."
Is there some political point-scoring at play? Clearly. As The Guardian notes, Russian media didn't spend much time railing against the actions of the NSA, actions that are almost certainly similar to what that country's government does through its SORM program. The paper points out that Russia also embraced Wikileaks' Julian Assange, offering him a show on the Russia Today network. Assange didn't return the courtesy, telling CNN that Snowden should head to Latin America for refuge. (Assange, speaking from London, also mentioned that he and Snowden had been in "indirect communication," perhaps via CNN.)
For Snowden to receive asylum in Russia, a few things need to happen. The country's Law of Refugees establishes the criteria:
- Snowden must be a non-Russian who fears persecution due to "political convention," and who can't return to his home country out of that fear. (Check; King — and others — have called for Snowden's to be arrested and tried.)
- He has to be 18 or older to apply on his own. (Check.)
- He must either apply to a consulate or, if he is within Russia without a visa (a process that takes some time), he must turn himself in to authorities within 24 hours. (It isn't clear where he is right now.)
- He can't have been charged with a crime in Russia, have previously been denied asylum, or have come directly from another nation in which he was considered for asylum.
If he's granted a certificate recognizing him as a refugee, Snowden gets food, shelter, and medical aid as necessary, and a bit of cash "not below 100 roubles." A word of warning, however: Snowden's former employer, the United States government, suggests that "asylum seekers at times faced detention, deportation threats, fines by police, and racially motivated assaults."
Snowden almost certainly wouldn't suffer that fate, having already risen to the attention of the president. If he does choose to head to Russia — which, so far, there's no indication that he will, though Iceland has been mentioned as a possible next stop — he would be the sixth American intelligence officer to do so, and the fourth from the NSA. The previous three — Bernon Mitchell, William Martin, and Victor Hamilton — did so in the 1960s, heading to the Soviet Union, not Russia. Those were defections in the classic sense, a denunciation of one political system in favor of another.
Using "defector" in this case seems a little less apt; the differences in the two countries' political systems have become far less distinct. Which was kind of Snowden's point.