Snowden’s New Talking Point: Nazi War Crimes Trial

Can NSA surveillance be compared to Hitler's genocide?

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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.

In his Friday statement from Moscow‘s Sheremetyevo International Airport, Edward Snowden revealed that he’s asked for asylum in Russia as he tries to arrange travel to a country willing to host him indefinitely, most likely Venezuela.

Along the way, Snowden framed his situation in striking new terms, citing the 1945-1946 Nuremberg trials that convicted several Nazi leaders of crimes against humanity. Here’s how he put it:

I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg in 1945: “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”

Accordingly, I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing. I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell US secrets. I did not partner with any foreign government to guarantee my safety. Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice.

Nuremberg did establish that a person is legally responsible for committing war crimes even if ordered to do so by higher authorities in what is known as the superior orders defense (although the tribunal’s principles do not appear to include the second sentence Snowden attributes to it in several online versions of his statement). Thus, the Nazi officials who condemned Jews to their deaths and pleaded that Hitler had made them do it were hanged without remorse.

As it happens, Snowden is  the first American in recent years to invoke Nuremberg as a justification for controversial insubordination. In 2006, Lt. Ehren Watada of Washington state refused his deployment to Iraq on the grounds that the war itself was illegal. The Army didn’t agree, though after much legal wrangling Watada got off with a discharge in 2009. More creatively, defenders of Lt. Colonel Terrence Lakin cited Nuremberg as a reason why the Colorado native was right to refuse orders to deploy to Afghanistan in 2010 on the grounds that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.

Snowden’s invocation of Nuremberg may not be quite so ridiculous, but it’s still a reach. Snowden’s Friday statement may invoke the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.” But the declaration is not legally binding, and few people would equate government surveillance programs with conquering Europe and committing mass genocide. As Massimo noted yesterday, Human Rights Watch is trying to construct a more compelling defense for Snowden. But it appears HRW is so far avoiding reference to Nuremberg.

Snowden isn’t going to convince the U.S. government to treat him like a conscientious objector or a heroic dissident, of course. He’s fighting a battle for international public opinion, including in Russia and other nations that might help him avoid spending the rest of his life in a federal prison. And if an implicit comparison between modern America and the Third Reich seems like a desperate measure, well, he’s a desperate man.