Eight years ago, Edward Snowden became one of the most talked-about figures of the decade. Hero to some and villain to others, the former CIA and NSA systems administrator was formally charged with espionage, theft and illegal use of government property after he published, in cooperation with The Guardian and The Washington Post, documents with classified information on mass surveillance programmes such as PRISM and XKeyscore.
Snowden thus began an odyssey worthy of Homer, which included requests for asylum in more than twenty countries (Austria, China, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, France, Spain, Nicaragua and Germany, among others). The various rejections led to a series of speculation (and diplomatic friction) that kept the world on tenterhooks. Most notoriously, on 3 July 2013, France, Spain, Italy and Portugal denied the landing of then Bolivian president Evo Morales on suspicion that Snowden was on board. In fact, Morales was even delayed in Vienna for this very reason.
“It is not an offence to the president but to a whole people, to a whole region like Latin America. We are going to study it legally, constitutionally and based on international norms. I cannot understand that they say, that they affirm and that they detain me because I was carrying a man, Edward Snowden. This man is not a suitcase, he is not a bug, he is not a fly that I can put on the plane and take him to Bolivia,” Morales said after the incident.
Snowden, who included numerous destinations of minimal democratic practices, was also backed by Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro, who assured that “if he asked us for it [asylum] we would think about it and almost certainly give it to him. Because political asylum is a humanitarian right to protect the persecuted. He is a boy who has not planted bombs or killed anyone”.
Thus, the former NSA employee ended up in Russia after a brief stay in Hong Kong.
The socio-political reality of 2021, particularly after a devastating pandemic, seems to have forgotten the whistleblower who shocked the world less than a decade ago. Nevertheless, Snowden remains relevant, and the Danish media outlet DR on 30 May reminded us why.
The first reports that the NSA was spying on several of its allies were made public in 2013 precisely by Snowden, but the event didn’t escalate and, although the then US president, Barack Obama, was briefly questioned by his European partners, the whole matter was little more than an imbroglio.
The problem today is more delicate than assumed back in 2013, as the NSA is said to have had logistical support from an EU member state, Denmark, for the surveillance (spying) of the bloc’s leading power, Germany, and its iconic chancellor, Angela Merkel.
The situation is extremely complex: on the one hand, we have two neighbouring countries of the European Union. On the other, a historical ally, the United States. But to top it all off, the current US president was vice-president at the time of the events! The implications are immense, and could result in the first major protocol setback for Biden, who is due to visit Europe in mid-June.
In this regard, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that “if these revelations are correct, I would like to say that it is not acceptable between allies, very clearly. It is even less acceptable between allies and European partners”. “There is no room between us for suspicion,” he added.
For her part, Angela Merkel declared that “I can only endorse the words of Emmanuel Macron. We have already talked about these things a long time ago in connection with the NSA. Our position in relation to the investigation of the issues at that time has not changed. We rely on relationships of trust and what was right then is right now”.
In this context, Bart Groothuis, a Dutch representative specialised in cybersecurity, explained that “political espionage isn’t prohibited by international law. That’s the reality. It’s not nice, it’s not always decent — but there’s no problem with it when you consider international law”.
Biden, therefore, has a gargantuan challenge at his first G7 summit: to convince his political and economic allies that he was unaware of Obama’s shady spying manoeuvres. On his success, yet to be evinced, will depend not only the fluidity of relations with the European bloc, but also the image he expects to project to the world.