What Snowden Needs Now Is a Good Lawyer

Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have offered NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum, but before he makes any other life-changing decisions, he should talk to a lawyer

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Glenn Greenwald / Laura Poitras / The Guardian / Reuters

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, in a still image taken from a video during an interview with the Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong on June 6, 2013

They say that a man who represents himself has a fool for a client.

Since he admitted to breaking U.S. laws that prohibit the disclosure of classified government information, NSA leaker Edward Snowden has claimed several rights are guaranteed him, including asylum, a passport and freedom from prosecution. Last week, in a call to the American people to rally to his defense, he wrote:

Although I am convicted of nothing, [the U.S. government] has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person. Without any judicial order, the Administration now seeks to stop me exercising a basic right. A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum.

But Snowden’s argument isn’t doing particularly well in the court of public opinion, which seems more inclined to the government’s view that Snowden is a fugitive from criminal justice and therefore subject to various authorities of law enforcement. Several supporters organized rallies on July 4 in cities around the U.S., but total turnout was around 3,000. The biggest rally, in Washington, D.C., weighed in at an estimated 400.

Now Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have offered Snowden asylum, and Russian officials have said that if those countries issue him travel documents he will be allowed to leave the airport in Moscow. But before Snowden makes any other hasty, life-changing decisions, he should exercise one right everyone agrees he has: the right to legal counsel.

Snowden’s failed appeal to the masses is just the latest turn in a mixed tactical performance. By one important measure, he has been enormously successful. The U.S. is now engaged in a full-blown debate over the balance between privacy and security. Previously unknown details about the extent of domestic NSA spying are now widely discussed. The head of U.S. intelligence, James Clapper, has apologized for misleading Congress about the NSA programs, and faces an uncertain future.

But Snowden’s success on the public front contrasts with his struggles on the private front. His decision to go to Hong Kong was ill conceived: the island has no refugee policy and was uncomfortable having him there. Then, apparently on the advice of a newfound friend from WikiLeaks with no legal background, he flew to Moscow. That hurt his reputation, and his cause, and has complicated his personal situation.

Snowden’s mixed record reflects his training. He is an expert in systems security, and the steps he has taken to shine light on NSA eavesdropping have been effective. But having chosen to break well-established U.S. laws, and to admit it publicly, he is showing less expertise in the legal consequences of his actions.

Maybe Snowden’s best option is self-imposed exile in Venezuela or Nicaragua. Maybe his public and private interests will be best served by fleeing there. But who knows what pressure and incentives the U.S. might bring to bear on future governments in those countries? And who knows what requirements those governments might impose on Snowden? One wonders what kind of deal a good lawyer might be able to negotiate with U.S. authorities eager to see his return.