Should Snowden Turn Himself In?


The current status of Edward Snowden is not entirely clear. He was evidently, and logically, on his way to the lovably volatile democracy of Ecuador to seek political asylum, but he seems to have gone missing somewhere between the city-state of Hong Kong and Moscow (wouldn't it have been easier to go east?). As does Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, Snowden obviously fears extradition to the U.S. His extreme methods of survival show this fear, as he has solicited, ironically, the sympathy of governments that are even more abusive and invasive — at least for now — than the U.S.

Snowden's fear is justified, as he has now been charged with the capital offense of espionage. Snowden has a good idea what he could face back in the U.S. Bradley Manning, also charged with a capital offense of aiding the enemy, will probably face life imprisonment if convicted. Snowden may expect similar consequences. In addition, he may believe that he would face a similar ordeal of semi-tortuous (if not, as many have alleged, tortuous) solitary confinement that Manning suffered before his trial. 

In this situation, some have asserted that Snowden, rather than hiding under the wings of other patently abusive governments, should return to the U.S. and face trial. If he believes that his actions were correct and vital, he should face the American justice system and argue his case in court.

The most obvious point of reference for these events is the Vietnam-era whistleblower, former Marine officer Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg shines as a paragon of honor, turning himself in on principle after leaking the Pentagon's own forthright and gloomy analysis of the Vietnam war, the so-called Pentagon Papers, over to the New York Times. He too faced charges of espionage and 115 years in prison, but the charges were eventually dropped on the grounds of — hilarious, given today's context — evidence gathered through illegal wiretapping.

It seems unlikely, though, that Snowden would enjoy a similar courthouse coup as Ellsberg did. By 1971, the year of Ellsberg's trial, much of the American public had turned rabidly against the Vietnam war; but today, public response to the NSA's spying program is decidedly lukewarm. The majority of Americans apparently approve of their government's intelligence-gathering programs if they help to intercept terrorist plots, and concede some of their privacy to this end. Without a bedrock of public support, perhaps Snowden considers his chances slim to win any legal battle with the government.

In this sense, the deck seems stacked against Snowden. Clearly, having fled the U.S. in the first place, he reckoned that he wouldn't be treated to a fair trial. One aspect of this event is certain, though: the precedent of modern whistleblowers to flee rather than face the notoriously draconian Obama administration does not bode well for the future health of American democracy. Given the administration's treatment of whistleblowers thus far, I can't rightly condemn Snowden's flight.