Last weekend, after the U.S. asked Hong Kong officials to extradite Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower traveled from Hong Kong to Moscow. After arriving in Russia, Snowden applied for asylum in Ecuador.
It may seem odd that Snowden, who leaked classified information in the name of civil liberties, would seek asylum in a country that recently passed a restrictive free-speech law, or that he would travel there via two authoritarian countries. Some of Snowden's critics, such as historian Tim Stanley, argue that the whistleblower's journey undermines his cause. "Snowden simply can’t pitch himself as an enemy of big government," Stanley wrote in the London Telegraph, "while seeking refuge in countries that have governments bigger than God." Secretary of State John Kerry made a similar argument, asking: "I wonder if Snowden chose Russia or China for assistance because they are such bastions of Internet freedom?" On Capitol Hill a bipartisan group of legislators have mocked Snowden’s choice of destinations, saying that there is some sort of hypocrisy in his choice of destinations. Unsurprisingly, some politicians have called Snowden a traitor.
But you shouldn't assume that Snowden is sympathetic to Russian, Chinese, or Ecuadorean policies. At this point he's just trying to avoid ending up in a cage on American soil. If he can do that while steering clear of a police state, he surely will. (Stanley overlooks the fact that Snowden is also seeking asylum in Iceland, hardly an authoritarian enclave.) But if you leak information that is embarrassing to the American government, there aren't many places to seek cover. Generally speaking, your options will be other countries whose governments don't mind embarrassing the U.S.
Snowden knows, after all, what may await him if he comes home. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private who leaked classified cables to Wikileaks, spent over 1,000 days behind bars without trial, including nine months alone in a cell, and was regularly stripped naked at night. Manning faced military justice, of course, while Snowden would be tried as a civilian; but the Obama administration has aggressively pursued civilian leakers too, some of whom have received prison sentences. Given the international attention the NSA revelations have attracted, it is reasonable for us to assume—and even more reasonable for Snowden to fear—that the administration will want to make an example of the leaker.
If Snowden’s application for asylum in Iceland is successful, there remains some hope that there is somewhere in the world where leakers can seek refuge that is not itself home to an authoritarian regime. Iceland has a reputation as a haven for transparency activists, and there is a member of the Icelandic parliament (and onetime Wikileaks volunteer) who says she would support an asylum application from Snowden; an Icelandic businessman, meanwhile, has said his private plane is ready to pick Snowden up at his convenience. But there are no immediate signs that Snowden will be granted asylum there. This may be because the island's new prime minister is considered closer to the U.S. than his predecessor and may not be keen to anger American officials so early in his term.
Hence Ecuador. If the choice is prison in a comparatively free country or freedom in a comparatively authoritarian country, who can blame Snowden for the picking the latter?