Edward Snowden Doesn't Like Authoritarian Regimes—He's Trying To Avoid Prison

Given what awaits him back in the U.S., we should not be surprised by Snowden's recent travel choices.


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?

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  1. At this point he’s just trying to avoid ending up in a cage on American soil.

    He’s being chased by some of the most vindictive people on Earth: Government bureaucrats backed by righteous duty, and an administration that doesn’t like to be questioned by the little people. That cage is inevitable, and just might end up taking the form of a pine box.

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  2. It’s funny, you go look at the comments on Yahoo News, which is essentially a news aggregator, and presumably not formally aligned with any political viewpoint, and you see OVERWHELMING support for Snowden, and caustic criticism of the whole spying regime.

    If this sentiment truly represents an internet-posting cross-section of opinion, then this government may have badly miscalculated where the people are on this issue.

    I sure hope so.

    1. Online comment sections aren’t really a accurate reflection of the nation’s mood or leanings.

      This scandal attracted the usual crowd that goes out of their way to be emotionally invested in the role of government. They make their voices heard. But in real life, the Snowden drama and the IRS debacle is mostly passing news.

      If you asked a typical American teen who Edward Snowden is, they probably don’t know who he is or will give only cursory answers. But they know Kim Kardashian had a baby.

      1. This is what’s so frustrating. People were appalled by Nixon’s spying in 1972, this is more far-reaching and assaults everyone, and people shrug their shoulders. We get the government other people deserve, unfortunately

  3. He fled one authoritarian country and the only other place to go was to other authoritarian countries who wouldn’t turn him over to his home authoritarian country? Shocking, I tell you.

    Matthew, you need to post this over at HuffPo, they really cannot grasp the message that you are trying to convey. Maybe you can convince them, but I doubt it.

    1. The theme of the Gov Boot-licking sites is “The traitor must die — we’re against the death penalty, but this is an exception — HE EXPOSED OUR LIES!”

  4. Here’s a prediction. I’m actually getting pretty good at them, but it’s not really that hard when you pay attention to the direction this country is going in.

    There’s going to be a lot of exodus from this country, and a lot more Snowdens, as out of control politicians continue to destroy our economy and our freedoms. Then McCain is going to try to build his fence up and detain or kill anyone that tries to escape. As the risk of being redundant, well, fuck it, the damn fence is to keep us in!

    1. Ron Paul said it, I believe it.

    2. Every time I bitch about this kind of stuff to friends or family their response is “Well if you hate the government so much then do something to change it”. But what do I do? Write a letter to Jeff Flake? Run for office (fat chance, I’m an atheist with no kids). I think the cards are so stacked against us that a person who cares about personal freedom’s only option is to become an expatriate

      1. How about the “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain” criticism. HaHaHa. Romney or Obama, right?

  5. He might be willing to come back to the US but he’s certain he’ll never get a fair, fully public, criminal trial. National Securitah will see to it that after he’s jailed indefinitely he’ll be tried by a Star Chamber and sentenced to some SuperMax hell hole. He’ll spend a few years being sodomized there before he magically gets murdered.

    “Pour encourager les autres” as the French say.

    1. I think Peeping-Tom Obama might pull the predator-drone trigger on him first.

      Alternatively he could send the SealTeamSix assassination squad after Holden. Then Obama can personally bathe the corpse before tossing it to the sharks.

      Either way, no messy trial which would reveal who knows what other government crimes.

  6. In case any government bureaucrats are perusing the comment section:


  7. Really, I could give a fuck. Kids who are in grade school now will be leaving the US in droves for better deals in their 30s and 40s. We’ll look back at Snowden flight over this NSA crap as quaint.

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  9. “Edward Snowden Doesn’t Like Authoritarian Regimes?He’s Trying To Avoid Prison”

    Which should be obvious to anyone not trying to demagogue the issue.

  10. “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?'”

    Says the man whose intentions are to imprison him. Maybe he would’ve chosen a “freer” country, like say the U.S., if it wasn’t so, well, unfree.

  11. Governments bigger than god? Sorry, but doesn’t Hong Kong have the smallest government in the world (speaking in terms of the economic freedom of its citizens.) I also wouldn’t exactly call it “authoritarian.”

  12. It’s a sad state of affairs when the totalitarian-minded Obamas, Grahams, Feinsteins, Kerrys, Clintons, PeterKings, Cheneys, et cetera, et cetera ——

    DEMAND that Holden turn himself in for imprisonment. torture and execution.

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  14. Trying to avoid facing justice you mean.

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