American defectors: life for Edward Snowden in Russia

Now that Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia (I suspect they mostly just wanted him gone from the airport.), it is not so certain he will have an easy life.  No matter how terrible you think surveillance is in the United States, I can guarantee that it is worse there.  And he likely has nothing more to trade to get better treatment.  NPR ran this story a few days ago.

If NSA leaker Edward Snowden is allowed to leave the Moscow airport and enter Russia, as some news reports suggest, he’ll join a fairly small group of Americans who have sought refuge there.

So how did it work out for the others?

In short, not so well. Some became disillusioned and left, like Lee Harvey Oswald. Others were sent to Josef Stalin’s gulags, where they served long sentences or were executed. Some lived out their days in an alcoholic haze.

“There’s little evidence from historical records that [Snowden] has anything good to look forward to,” says Peter Savodnik, a journalist and author of the upcoming book, The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union. “Essentially, nobody from the U.S. who has defected to Russia has gone on to think that’s a smart decision.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, hundreds of American leftists moved to what was then the Soviet Union, motivated by a desire to build socialism.

Alexander Gelver of Oshkosh, Wis., was taken there by his parents. But when the 24-year-old wanted to return to the U.S., he was stopped by Soviet police outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He was arrested and disappeared. Only in the 1990s did his fate become clear: He was executed in 1938, one of Stalin’s many victims.

The Associated Press documented the case of Gelver and 14 other Americans who disappeared in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and ’40s. All were either imprisoned or executed. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other Americans, met a similar fate during the rule of Stalin, who suspected that foreigners were spies.

A famous case in the Cold War era has parallels to Snowden. William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, cryptologists at the NSA, defected in 1960. But they came to regret their decision and became alcoholics. Martin died in Mexico in 1987. Mitchell died in Russia in 2001.

One defector who did return was Oswald. He left for the Soviet Union in 1959, returned to the U.S. three years later, and became infamous as the assassin of President Kennedy in 1963.

Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker seen here in a photo taken in July, has been granted temporary asylum in Russia. Thursday, he left Moscow's airport for the first time in more than a month.

Let’s hope that Snowden has better luck.  It will be tough not knowing many people and not speaking Russian.  Personally, I don’t think he made a good choice or got good advice.  I have never understood why he couldn’t go directly from Hong Kong to South American someplace.

Photograph:  Tatyana Lokshina/AP

Fixing FISA

Congress is beginning to have a debate about surveillance, oversight and secrecy – the one good thing to come out of  Edward Snowden’s continuing adventure.  Of course, it is hard to debate when you can’t talk about a lot of things in public or even to your fellow members, so I was very interesting in reading Judge James G. Carr’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.  His suggestion is one that Congress and the Obama Administration should be able to debate and legislate without revealing anything that needs to be kept secret.  Judge Carr is identified as a senior federal judge for the Northern District of Ohio,[who] served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 2002 to 2008.

CONGRESS created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 1978 as a check on executive authority. Recent disclosures about vast data-gathering by the government have raised concerns about the legitimacy of the court’s actions. Congress can take a simple step to restore confidence in the court’s impartiality and integrity: authorizing its judges to appoint lawyers to serve the public interest when novel legal issues come before it.

The court is designed to protect individual liberties as the government protects us from foreign dangers. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the Nixon administration had violated the Fourth Amendment by conducting warrantless surveillance on a radical domestic group, the White Panthers, who were suspected of bombing a C.I.A. recruiting office in Ann Arbor, Mich. In 1975 and 1976, the Church Committee, a Senate panel, produced a series of reports about foreign and domestic intelligence operations, including surveillance by the F.B.I. of suspected communists, radicals and other activists — including, notoriously, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Foreign Intelligence Service Act set up the FISA Court in response. To obtain authority to intercept the phone and electronic communications of American citizens and permanent residents, the government must only show probable cause that the target has a connection to a foreign government or entity or a foreign terrorist group. It does not have to show, as with an ordinary search warrant, probable cause that the target is suspected of a crime.

The problem is that the court only hears from one side.  I wrote recently that the real danger to our civil liberties is the FISA Court and I hoped that people will come up with ways to try to fix it.  Judge Carr has one suggestion at which Congress should take a serious look.

Critics note that the court has approved almost all of the government’s surveillance requests. Some say the court is virtually creating a secret new body of law governing privacy, secrecy and surveillance. Others have called for declassified summaries of all of the court’s secret rulings.

James Robertson, a retired federal judge who served with me on the FISA court, recently called for greater transparency of the court’s proceedings. He has proposed the naming of an advocate, with high-level security clearance, to argue against the government’s filings. He suggested that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which oversees surveillance activities, could also provide a check. I would go even further.

In an ordinary criminal case, the adversarial process assures legal representation of the defendant. Clearly, in top-secret cases involving potential surveillance targets, a lawyer cannot, in the conventional sense, represent the target.

Congress could, however, authorize the FISA judges to appoint, from time to time, independent lawyers with security clearances to serve “pro bono publico” — for the public’s good — to challenge the government when an application for a FISA order raises new legal issues.

Having lawyers challenge novel legal assertions in these secret proceedings would result in better judicial outcomes. Even if the government got its way all or most of the time, the court would have more fully developed its reasons for letting it do so. Of equal importance, the appointed lawyer could appeal a decision in the government’s favor to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review — and then to the Supreme Court. No opportunity for such review exists today, because only the government can appeal a FISA court ruling.

A combination of a people’s advocate and public release of decision summaries would remove some of the mystery and secrecy.

One obvious objection: judges considering whether to issue an ordinary search warrant hear only from the government. Why should this not be the same when the government goes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?

My answer: the court is unique among judicial institutions in balancing the right to privacy against the president’s duty to protect the public, and it encounters issues of statutory and constitutional interpretation that no other court does or can.

For an ordinary search warrant, the judge has a large and well-developed body of precedent. When a warrant has been issued and executed, the subject knows immediately. If indicted, he can challenge the warrant. He can also move to have property returned or sue for damages. These protections are not afforded to FISA surveillance targets. Even where a target is indicted, laws like the Classified Information Procedures Act almost always preclude the target from learning about the order or challenging the evidence. This situation puts basic constitutional protections at risk and creates doubts about the legitimacy of the court’s work and the independence and integrity of its judges. To avert these dangers, Congress should amend FISA to give the court’s judges the discretion to appoint lawyers to serve not just the interests of the target and the public — but those of the court as well.

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993 (Photo credit: David Holt London)

We are already deep in uncharted waters and we need to take steps to try to protect ourselves.  It serves no purpose if we lose our civil liberties while protecting them.  I don’t have a great deal of hope that Congress can actually get itself together enough to act, but there has been some glimmer of bipartisanship about this issue.  Let us hope someone writes Judge Carr’s ideas into a bill so it can be introduced.

Whistle-blower, maybe. Hero, probably not.

I just can’t figure Edward Snowden.  The more little pieces I hear about and read about him, the more I wonder about him and his motivation.  This is why I found Jonathan Capehart’s piece so interesting.  Writing in the Washington Post’s Post Partisan blog, Capehart begins

A sidewalk encounter with a friend drove home my conflicted feelings about Edward Snowden. The national-security leaker was surely a “narcissist,” he said, but Snowden was definitely “a hero.” And the more my friend talked about the reaction to Snowden, especially that of congressional Democrats, the more angry his own reaction appeared to become. Part of me wished I could work up that much passion for this self-professed champion of government transparency. Alas, I can’t.

I feel the same way.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Snowden told the Guardian which broke the story that he wanted to go to a place where the government doesn’t spy on people.  The last time I checked, Hong Kong has a complicated legal relationship to China.  China is not exactly a country that eschews spying on citizens.  In an article about extradition the Guardian says

Hong Kong has not accepted a political defence against extradition since the handover in 1997. In the 1930s it turned down a bid by French authorities for Ho Chi Minh’s return to what was then IndoChina, in a case that went all the way to the privy council. More recently, in 1994, its courts stayed the extradition of the politician Jeffrey Kitigan to Malaysia.

Guy Goodwin-Gill QC, a leading expert on extradition at Blackstone Chambers in London, noted that the international climate had changed, with offences that previously might have qualified – such as hijacking – no longer accepted as political.

“The times are very much one of co-operation across a broad range of activities. You hardly ever find a state refusing extradition for political offences any longer,” he said.

In the case of Snowden, “you certainly see political dimensions: you have members of the US senate or House of Representatives calling him a traitor – so they are building a very good case for another state to treat this as political,” added Goodwin-Gill.

Of course, there are avenues for appeal through the courts in Hong Kong which could drag out the process for years according to some British legal experts.  It remains unclear why he went to part of China when he was professing a wish to be free of surveillance.

I have also heard that he may have misrepresented his salary to the Guardian – that it was much lower than he claimed.  Snowden also claimed that as a contractor with the NSA he had broad authority to do a lot of things that some experts question.  This is from NPR

Edward Snowden’s claim that as systems administrator for a defense contractor in Hawaii he had the authority “to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president,” just isn’t plausible, says a former national security lawyer at the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Carrie Cordero, the former Justice and DNI lawyer, is now director of national securities studies at Georgetown University Law Center. She tells Steve that “the notion that this individual has the authority to go ahead and … ‘wiretap’ people is just ridiculous.”

Without discussing the details of how such surveillance programs work and the safeguards that are in place to protect privacy, Cordero says that Snowden’s claim “does not resemble anything close to what I observed within the intelligence community.”

Snowden may turn out to be a braggart who stretches the truth.  And this may damage his credibility overall.  But the bottom line for me is that he doesn’t seem to have told us anything that a lot of people didn’t know before.  Capehart again

We absolutely should know what our government is up to. And, according to The Post’s Walter Pincus, we’ve known about this for quite some time.

The legendary national-security writer cites a May 2006 USA Today story that revealed “the NSA ‘has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth,’ attributing that information to ‘people with direct knowledge of the arrangement.’” Then there was the March 15, 2012, Wired magazine story on the new $2 billion NSA Data Center in Utah and “its ability to ‘intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.’”

“Was there any follow-up in the mainstream media to [James] Bamford’s disclosure, or anything close to the concerns voiced on Capitol Hill this past week? No,” Pincus writes in Tuesday’s paper.

So where should we go from here?  I agree with Capehart’s conclusions

Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a debate about what we now know and its appropriateness now that we know it. Eugene Robinson zeroes in on this in his Tuesday column.

The NSA, it now seems clear, is assembling an unimaginably vast trove of communications data, and the bigger it gets, the more useful it is in enabling analysts to make predictions. It’s one thing if the NSA looks for patterns in the data that suggest a nascent overseas terrorist group or an imminent attack. It’s another thing altogether if the agency observes, say, patterns that suggest the birth of the next tea party or Occupy Wall Street movement.

Is that paranoia? Then reassure me. Let’s talk about the big picture and decide, as citizens, whether we are comfortable with the direction our intelligence agencies are heading. And let’s remember that it was Snowden, not our elected officials, who opened this vital conversation.

Yes, Snowden opened this conversation. But that’s as much credit as I’m willing to give him.

That sounds about right.  Let’s see if Congress talk about this without a lot of finger-pointing and hysteria.  Should the result be changes to the Patriot Act, we can give Snowden a little piece of the credit.

Photograph: AP