by Robert E. Hunter
Edward Snowden has left Moscow for an “undisclosed location” in Russia, with a one-year freedom-of-the-country pass. The US government is naturally incensed with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To borrow a Russian phrase coined by Nikolai Chernyshevsky and plagiarized by V. I. Lenin, Что делать? (Chto delat), or, “what is to be done?”
Case Snowden is not an isolated event involving a felon who stole secrets that were properly and necessarily classified and willfully leaked them, knowing this would be detrimental to the country whose security he had sworn to protect. Nor is he a whistleblower who was rightly — in his view — trying to promote a national debate on things that have “gone too far.”
What is taking place is the coming together of two strands. And understanding context is necessary to understanding current events.
The first strand is the fact that “9/11” is now almost 12 years in the past, and, except for a few isolated instances — a shoe bomber, an underwear bomber, a nutcase in Times Square and the horrendous bombing at the Boston Marathon (not part of organized terror) — the United States has been more-or-less free from terrorism in the homeland. How much of that is due to the actions of US security institutions and personnel, no one can tell, but it’s probably considerable.
This very success has led to the attenuation of fear in the US about more terrorism here. Except for New York City, that fear hovers around like what scientists call “background radiation” — something that is always there but not worried about in our own lives. Furthermore, the average American has tuned out of the two wars that were spawned by 9/11, one that has been dubbed a “war of necessity” — Afghanistan, though that is a debatable proposition, beyond the initial spasm response in later 2001 — and the other “war of choice” in Iraq, which has helped create the mess in Syria and a general Sunni-Shite low-grade civil war throughout the center of the Middle East.
Against this background is questioning around whether a second look should be taken at the balance struck after 9/11 between “homeland security” and civil liberties, including the adequate and fair functioning of the US criminal justice system.
This questioning has had several parts, including the continued incarceration of alleged terrorists at Guantanamo; the use of military tribunals rather than civilian courts for Guantanamo inmates who have had trials; the holding of Private Bradley Manning in solitary for a long time before his court martial this month on multiple counts, including “aiding the enemy;” revelations about US spying on allies including the European Union missions in Washington and New York; surveillance activities by the National Security Agency, about which we still have been told very little; and even the appearance of NSA Director General Keith Alexander at the Black Hat hackers’ conference in Las Vegas.
Case Snowden is only one element of this overall picture and is playing out against the failure of the US government to makes its case in public that its activities in the sphere of intelligence-gathering and protecting pass muster and are indeed needed to keep us all safe. Indeed, a Quinnipiac poll indicates that a majority of Americans surveyed believe that Snowden is just a whistleblower.
Strand two is in Russia. When the Soviet Union came to an end, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton worked hard to prevent the principal successor state, the Russian Federation, from being stigmatized as a loser: “Costa Rica with nuclear weapons.” For a long time, it was a country whose GDP was equivalent to that of the Netherlands, save for oil and gas, where Russia was bursting at the seams but which, any economist can tell you, made Russia a “rentier” state, able to sell stuff that comes out of the ground but not able to do much else. The Russian military even took five days to gain the upper hand in its 2008 mini-war with Georgia, a country well down the league table in military terms — simultaneously with the Beijing Olympics, which showed off an economic powerhouse.
Russia has also objected to US (and NATO) plans to extend anti-ballistic missile systems to part of Central Europe. The Russian elite has to know that this in no way would pose a threat to Russian offensive nuclear missile systems; at least part of Moscow’s objection must be due to the sense that, somehow, the US is taking advantage of its relative weakness. We can reject that reasoning but we should not just dismiss the possibility that it could be real psychologically and hence politically for the Russians.
Something we do have to take more seriously is Russia’s interest in being more directly engaged in the Middle East. In major parts, our interests are at least compatible; in others (Syria, and beneath the surface of a supposed agreement on Iran) far less so; and, in general, we have to deal with one another at a structured, strategic level, beyond the often episodic nature of current US-Russia relations regarding this region. Snowden is grist to this particular Russian mill.
Despite what Presidents Bush and Clinton tried to do to provide Russia with at least some (limited) role in the European strategic future, it was natural that the new Russia was portrayed negatively by a lot of people, some who had (legitimate) scores to settle with the Soviet Union. A lot of Americans did likewise; it even took 20 years for the US Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which had been designed to encourage the Soviet Union to permit the emigration of Soviet Jews; and the US and others did not permit Russia until August 2012 to join the World Trade Organization, despite urging by some of us, then serving in the US government in the 1990s, to do this instantly — WTO membership criteria be damned. We urged this in order to help give the average Russian a sense that, despite having lost so much, their country could become engaged in the global economy, with benefits for their daily lives and thus perhaps helping to engender a more positive attitude toward working with the West.
The Clinton administration did the right thing in balancing NATO enlargement, designed to provide confidence to Central European states, with the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997; and the George W. Bush administration took a small added step at the Rome NATO summit in 2002. But there was still no real acknowledgement, whether earned or not, that, like Pinocchio, Russia had become a “real boy” in the international political and economic system.
Case Snowden also has come at a time when the US, in particular, has been objecting to certain human rights practices in Russia, including limits not just on non-governmental organizations that are exclusively Russian, but also those which have foreign ties, like the Carnegie Moscow Center and the German political party foundations. And there have been the show trials of people who have fallen out with Putin and his supporters. The US Congress has even passed condemnatory legislation, an ultra vires action if there ever were one — except that, as the principal successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia is still bound by the 1976 Helsinki Final Act, with its human rights and activities provisions, even within the territory of sovereign states.
Take me seriously, as well as my country, Vladimir Putin is saying; and surely most Russians agree. And given that the Snowden affair at least raises issues of “fairness” and “human rights,” Putin is enjoying the chance to play games with the United States. (Of course, Putin might have more serious business in mind, which may be detrimental to US and Western interests, and this needs to be tested).
These two strands — U.S. Post-Terrorism-Stress-Rebalancing and Putin/Russia’s search for a renewed place in the sun — come together and at least in part explain the current imbroglio in US-Russian relations over Edward Snowden’s fate.
Since even in the medium-term, neither Russia nor the US really has very much to gain by this continuing controversy except mutual headaches, some way out needs to be found.
The first thing is for the US to make clear that President Obama will take part in next month’s G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg and will not make the Snowden business hostage to his being there. Of course, as host, Putin has a stake in helping the president save face. Experience from 33 years ago counsels this approach. President Jimmy Carter pursued a “Rose Garden Campaign Strategy” in 1980 because of the Iranian hostage crisis. It cost him at the polls. And the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This also cost Carter at the polls.
Step two is for both countries to lower the rhetoric and, at the same time, transition to grown-up diplomacy, with an aim to get this matter resolved by the time of the G-8 summit. From the US perspective, the objective should be Snowden’s either deciding to return voluntarily to face the music, or showing himself unwilling to take any responsibility for his declared ambition and goals as a whistleblower.
For the US to achieve this means doing things about the two strands, noted above. On the role of the US intelligence community and government secrecy, it means getting on top of the controversy now rather than later and coming clean about what it is doing and what it is not doing and what it is prepared to place off-limits in the future. That includes revisions to the secret FISA Court (one that might actually turn down more than a tiny handful of government requests for surveillance authority); coming clean with Congress and the public about surveillance activities that affect Americans (where some small steps toward reassurance have been taken); and creating a process with congressional and public participants to ensure that civil liberties will indeed be protected; in effect, to strike a new, valid and enduring balance between security and citizens’ civil liberties and privacy rights.
At the same time, the Justice Department, along with the security agencies, needs to make clear that if and when Snowden returns to the US, he will be properly tried in a civilian court with a limited number of charges directly related to the real damage he (allegedly) has done to US security. No “secret list” of supposed damage to national security, where US government credibility has suffered so much. No piling on of charges, with potential consecutive sentences that add up to multiple lifetimes. And no overreaching, which even the military judge in the Manning court-martial decided the government had done by charging him with aiding the enemy.
If Snowden is thus assured of a fair trial, maybe he would then come home. Certainly, Russia could not detain him. If instead he decided to remain a “man without a country,” he would lose in the court of public opinion. Further, the damage he can cause to national security has already been done; but a standard for whistleblowing could be reset, with reasonable protections for those who do see misfeasance and malfeasance, but no free pass for those who cross the line.
Then, about Russia. Here, Putin has as much of a role to play as the US. While we need to show that we respect legitimate Russian interests that are not in conflict with ours, Putin and company have to recognize that, to be taken seriously in the outside world, they have to play by the international standards that have been developing over the last half-century. Cracking down on foreign NGOs has to be beyond the pale, as well as trying and convicting dead people (Sergei Magnitsky) who have challenged Putin’s authority or who have had the temerity to try running for Mayor of Moscow next month as a Putin critic (Alexei Navalny). What’s the point of Putin’s doing all this? These actions, while “sending signals” to other Putin opponents, should be small beer for him compared with the needs of an aspiring great power to be taken seriously by other countries.
The “Snowden part” of this drama cannot be brought to resolution unless and until he decides that he will return home. The “Putin part” can be bought to resolution when grown-ups in Moscow and Washington get together and understand why the needs of their mutual relationship should not be held hostage to anything that is not genuinely important to one side or the other.
We shall see if both sides have the wit and wisdom to proceed in this way.
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