Snowden Makes A Smart Move

The NSA leaker may be able to turn the vagueness and weakness of international law to his advantage

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Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth tweeted this photo, taken by the organization's Deputy Director for Russia Tanya Lokshina in the Moscow airport on July 12, 2013.

Correction appended: July 12, 2013, 2:35 p.m. E.T

NSA leaker Edward Snowden met with representatives from several rights organizations Friday at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, and to judge from the statement he released, the identities of those who were present, and the reports that have emerged from the meeting, he is beginning to get some good advice and may be making some smart moves.

Snowden’s play seems to be to turn the vagueness and weakness of international law to his advantage in pursuit of political asylum. It’s not an easy play, but it might work.

His first step seems to be to get out of the airport and onto Russian soil, where he can operate with greater freedom. Snowden reportedly announced at the meeting that he would seek temporary asylum in Moscow as part of his effort to receive permanent refuge from one of the countries in Latin America that have offered it. A member of the Russian Parliament, Vyacheslav Nikonov, who reportedly attended the meeting at the airport, told Russian television afterwards that Snowden had agreed to comply with President Vladimir Putin’s precondition for Russian asylum, namely that Snowden stop damaging the U.S. with his leaks.

If Snowden can obtain temporary asylum in Moscow, his next hurdle is to convince other countries to let him transit through them to one of the Latin American nations that have offered him permanent asylum. For that he needs help making legal arguments that can withstand U.S. diplomatic pressure.

That’s a tall order, given Snowden’s position. But at least one of the groups attending the airport meeting has good lawyers: Human Rights Watch, whose executive director is Kenneth Roth. Snowden’s tactical performance, we’ve noted, has been mixed. He has had success on the public front in stimulating a debate about domestic surveillance and exposing deception by top U.S. officials. But privately he’s made legal decisions and claims that have hurt him as much as they’ve helped.

Roth is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, and knows what he’s doing. Snowden doesn’t have a great case for asylum. But Human Rights Watch has tried to construct a defense that can turn international law’s vagueness to Snowden’s advantage. HRW claims countries should respect his asylum claim because international law sometimes justifies leaking secrets if they “expose and protect against serious human rights violations.”

Usually, HRW reserves such language for horrible things like genocidal massacres, but they may have some other definition of “serious rights violations” in mind. They’ll need something more convincing than the “Tshwane Principles” they cite in his defense. Their one advantage, and Snowden’s, is that they’re not constructing an argument that has to stand up in a U.S. court, but one for use by any country brave (or foolish) enough to try and withstand U.S. diplomatic pressure. That’s a lower bar, though not necessarily an easy one to clear either.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Roth was present at the meeting. Though a representative of his group was at the Moscow airport, Roth was not.