He may be in Moscow, or perhaps he slipped away already to Cuba, Ecuador or Venezuela. Wherever Edward Snowden winds up on his increasingly desperate flight from American law enforcement, one thing is clear: he will not wind up in a country that cares about civil liberties in the United States.
Any country that takes him in will do so simply to embarrass the United States. China enjoyed the proof that the Obama administration was just as energetic as the Red Army in hacking overseas computer networks and communications. Russia would like some payback for Western spying on its leaders, and the detention of some of its citizens on international criminal charges. Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela love any opportunity to heave a few stones northward.
By taking his flash drives and laptops full of stolen classified material to any of these countries, Mr. Snowden will severely damage his credibility as someone who wants to bring about change back home. His presence in the airports of Moscow or Havana, or in government housing in Caracas, will give American lawmakers the excuse they need to refuse any changes in the laws that have allowed domestic surveillance to go off the rails.
His dash to South American freedom will also wind up focusing attention only on the drama of his flight, rather than the civil liberties issues that he says are his cause. For weeks, the cameras will be trained on diplomatic wrangling and cries of protest from Washington, and the public will pay far less attention to the abuses that he revealed.
Mr. Snowden was courageous in admitting what he did and not hiding behind anonymity, but he is diminishing himself by seeking asylum in countries that have their own agendas. Asylum should be reserved for those fleeing unjust political persecution; Mr. Snowden has acknowledged committing a federal crime.
If he flew home and surrendered, submitting himself to a trial on espionage and theft charges, there is a good chance he would be found guilty and would have to spend much of the rest of his life in prison rather than the tropics. But accepting punishment for breaking a law one considers unjust has over time been a successful strategy for changing that law. Those who were serious about practicing civil disobedience — people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, or Thoreau — always taught that it was vital not to deny the crime or flee from its punishment, but to use that punishment as a demonstration of one’s purpose.
As Dr. King wrote in his 1963 letter, while locked up in a Birmingham jail: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with having a law on the books like the Espionage Act, which prohibits the disclosure of classified information, just as there was nothing wrong with the requirement, violated by Dr. King, to have a permit in order to parade. What is wrong is when a reasonable law is used for an improper purpose, like maintaining segregation or keeping secret a mass collection of American telephone records that appears to violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches.
The government has clearly classified far too much information that should have been revealed to the public, including the legal opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that allowed these domestic spying programs in the first place. (There has still been no evidence showing that the disclosure of the phone-data program has harmed national security.)
By stealing and then leaking this information to journalists, Mr. Snowden created a valuable debate on privacy versus government power that has led even conservative lawmakers to consider changes. (President Obama says he welcomes this debate, but he would never have started it without the leaks.)
If Mr. Snowden pleads not guilty and has a full public trial, he may have the chance to testify about other ways in which the government has chosen to classify programs that infringe on the activities of ordinary Americans. And if he were to choose that course would likely arouse far more sympathy than by leaking documents from the relative comfort of “asylum” in Ecuador.