The aim of this website is to protect the human rights of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed secret NSA surveillance programs to monitor and intercept the world’s internet communications, and to explain:
- the threats Edward Snowden faces, and why it is important that his rights are protected
- how he is being protected, and by who
- what you can do to support Edward Snowden
- what you can do to protect your own private communications from unwarranted surveillance and intrusion.
Edward Snowden left Hong Kong on 23 June 2013 with the help of WikiLeaks to avoid extradition to the US following publication of his revelations about NSA mass surveillance programs in the Guardian and Washington Post. He applied for political asylum to a total of 27 countries, eventually gaining temporary asylum for one year in Russia on 1 August 2013. He is currently safe in Russia at an undisclosed location.
Threats to Edward Snowden from the US
Edward Snowden has been charged by the US government with theft of government property (18 USC § 641), unauthorised communication of national defense information (18 USC § 793(d)) and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorised person (18 USC § 798(a)(3)). These charges together incur a maximum 30-year prison sentence and, as happened in Chelsea Manning’s case, it is possible that a second set of charges might be added at a later date. Two of the current charges fall under the draconian 1917 Espionage Act, for which there is no public interest or whistleblower defence allowed. The threat these charges pose to Edward Snowden should be seen in the context of the intensifying ‘war on whistleblowers’ of the current US administration, which has now embarked on its ninth Espionage Act prosecution over leaks to the press (the ninth is former FBI agent Donald Sachtlenben, for which the US government secretly obtained the telephone records of AP reporters). This is three times more than all previous administrations combined.
“The campaign to flush out media sources smacks of retaliation and intimidation. The Obama administration is right to protect information that might legitimately undermine national security or put Americans at risk. However, it does not protect national security interests when it brings cases against whistleblowers who divulge information that communicates important information to the public; sparks meaningful dialogue; or exposes fraud, waste, abuse, illegality, or potential dangers to public health and safety.” The Criminalization of Whistleblowing [pdf], Jesselyn Radack & Kathleen McClellan, Government Accountability Project
For more on the threats faced by Edward Snowden, see this Congressional Research Service report Criminal Prohibitions on the Publication of Classified Defense Information, updated September 2013 to include Snowden, and the Threats section of this website.
What is an asylee, and what are the laws governing asylum?
An asylee is a person who is seeking or has been granted asylum outside of his or her country of nationality on the basis that they are unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. This definition is set out in the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The right to seek asylum is also codified in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Edward Snowden’s fear of persecution if he is returned to the US is well-founded. The recent trial and 35-year sentence of Chelsea (previously Bradley) Manning has shown that the defence strategies a whistleblower can employ against an Espionage Act charge are severely curtailed, making it impossible to receive a fair trial. Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights has also highlighted concerns over how Snowden might be treated in pre- or post-trial detention:
“Think about how the US defines torture. The US doesn’t really think that anything it did under the Bush era was torture, with the exception possibly of waterboarding. So that means Ed Snowden can be subjected to every enhanced interrogation techniques – you know, lights on all the time, loud noise, cold temperatures, hot temperatures, strapped into a chair. All of the, quote, “enhanced interrogation techniques” are allowed under US view of torture. That’s one. Secondly, prolonged, arbitrary detention? It doesn’t say anything in [Eric Holder’s] letter we won’t put him into some underground cell and keep him there the rest of his life. And then it says he doesn’t have any right to asylum. And that’s just wrong. Whistleblowers are entitled to apply for asylum, and it can’t be interfered with by the United States.”
International customary law includes the principles of non-refoulment and safe passage. Non-refoulment prohibits states from returning refugees in any manner whatsoever to countries or territories in which their lives or freedom may be threatened, and is binding on all states. The US ignored international law in preventing safe passage for Edward Snowden from Moscow to Latin America by obstructing access to US allies’ airspace and threatening economic consequences for any country which granted him asylum. The UN General Assembly Resolution 2312 (1967) states that: “the grant of asylum… is a peaceful and humanitarian act and… as such, it cannot be regarded as unfriendly by any other State.” Read more at Political interference.
Edward Snowden’s asylum in Russia
Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on 23 June 2013, en route to Ecuador where he had requested political asylum. However, he was unable to continue his journey due to the extraordinary and disproportionate actions of the US government, which announced it had cancelled his passport while he was in Moscow, rendering him unable to board onward flights. He remained stranded in the airside transit area of Sheremetyevo airport for nearly six weeks until being granted temporary asylum in Russia on 1 August 2013. In August 2014, Edward Snowden was granted a three-year residence permit, which gives him the right to work and travel within the Russian Federation and to travel abroad for periods of up to three months. For more information, see Asylum in Russia.
Who else offered Edward Snowden protection?
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua all made formal offers of asylum to Edward Snowden on 6 July 2013. Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro said: “He has told the truth, in the spirit of rebellion, about the US spying on the whole world. Who is the guilty one?” Although Mr Snowden was prevented from travelling there, many commenters still think Latin America the best ultimate destination for him. Edward Snowden wrote to Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa thanking him for his country’s support, and a group of Latin American experts wrote an open letter criticising the Western media meme of the ‘irony’ of Snowden’s request for asylum in Venezuela.
As a publishing organisation, WikiLeaks campaigns for greater protection of journalistic sources and has taken a leading role in assisting Edward Snowden.
Extraction from Hong Kong: At Edward Snowden’s request, WikiLeaks stepped in to help him get out of Hong Kong safely. During this period WikiLeaks also brokered several asylum offers for Snowden. For Edward Snowden’s journey from Hong Kong, WikiLeaks provided a legal adviser to accompany him at all times to ensure his safety and then assisted in making asylum requests to more than two dozen countries once he was trapped in the Sheremetyevo airport transit terminal after the US cancelled his passport.
Advocacy: WikiLeaks’ publisher Julian Assange has given several media interviews from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, in which he called Edward Snowden a “hero”. WikiLeaks also released a number of press statements on behalf of Edward Snowden, see here, here and here. Mr Assange and Reporters Without Borders general secretary Christophe Deloire wrote a joint op-ed in Le Monde calling for European nations to protect Edward Snowden.
Continued care: At Edward Snowden’s request, a WikiLeaks representative remained with him at all times while he starts his life in Russia. Sarah Harrison stayed with Mr Snowden for four months until she was sure that he was settled and “free from the interference of any government.”
NGOs and other whistleblowers
Many organisations have issued statements and comments supporting Edward Snowden, including Amnesty International, Index on Censorship, the National Whistleblowers Center, the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU confirmed that it was helping to coordinate Mr Snowden’s legal defence, stating: “The ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecutable under the nation’s espionage laws.”
US national security whistleblowers Thomas Drake, Kirk Wiebe and Jesselyn Radack all praised the actions of Edward Snowden when testifying before a European Parliament committee investigating NSA/GCHQ surveillance. Ms Radack also read out a statement from Edward Snowden giving his own contribution to the committee hearing.
Ladar Levison, the owner of the Lavabit encrypted email service used by Edward Snowden, has resisted secret court orders to provide an encryption work-around affecting 400,000 customers’ private data, going so far as to close his business rather than become “complicit in crimes against the American people”. He was eventually forced to comply with the court order.
Awards & nominations
Awards given to Edward Snowden, or for which he has been nominated, include:
- The Sam Adams Award 2013, given by the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence
- Transparency International Germany: Whistleblower Prize 2013 (video of Tor Project developer Jacob Applebaum reading Edward Snowden’s acceptance speech)
- International Human Rights Award, Brazilian Press Association
- Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2013 (shortlisted finalist)
- Ridenhour Prize for Truth-telling 2014, awarded jointly with Laura Poitras
- Berliner Award for Civic Courage
- Nobel Peace Prize, Edward Snowden has received at least three nominations – most are not made publicly – for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
How can supporters take action to help protect Edward Snowden?
Our Take action! section outlines lots of different ways to support Edward Snowden and to protect your own digital communications from unwarranted surveillance.
- Sign petitions such as ACLU‘s, Index on Censorship‘s, the We The People petition on the White House web portal or the Stop Watching Us petition to Congress. For more, see the Petitions page.
- Sign or write open letters, like this one started by film director Oliver Stone or this one addressed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. We will publish details of open letters that are seeking signatures or can be used as a template to create your own letter-writing campaign as they become available.
- Make your voice heard in opinion polls. As more of Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance were published, polls by Reuters/IPSOS and Quinnipiac University showed a sharp upswing in the number of people who thought Snowden was a “whistleblower” or a “patriot”.
- Take part in local or international events to rally support for Edward Snowden and bring attention to the issues his whistleblowing has raised, such as Freedom Not Fear, Restore the Fourth or Stop Watching Us.
- See our Take action! section for Five easy actions you can do, both to support Edward Snowden and to protect your own privacy. Links to a range of programs you can use to secure your communications are given in the Privacy enhancing technologies section (coming soon).