What crime did Edward Snowden commit?

Edward Snowden - Hero or Traitor?

Edward Snowden: is he a hero or a traitor? More than five years after his spectacular NSA revelations, this question is still a hot topic of discussion. For some, the best-known whistleblower is the hero of the 21st century, for his homeland, the USA, and for many others he remains a traitor who played into the hands of terrorists.

It all started very differently: Out of love for his homeland, as he himself likes to emphasize, Snowden, who comes from a military family, volunteered to serve in the Iraq war in 2003. He later applied to the Special Forces, but where he broke both legs during a training course. He ends up with the US secret service CIA and is assigned to the virtual fight against terrorism due to his programming talent. For the first time he has access to top secret information.


When he was stationed in Geneva, Snowden found out about PRISM, a program with which the US secret services can access millions of data from users of Internet companies such as Facebook and Google. According to his own statements, he is already skeptical, but is convinced of the necessity of the measures. Other events lead him to leave the CIA. He ended up as an external employee at the National Security Agency (NSA), stationed in Hawaii, via the contract company Booz Allen Hamilton.

committed crimes

The young computer expert plans his step to go public and to inform the world about the unprecedented mass surveillance, which in his opinion violates human rights and the US constitution. The then 29-year-old is well aware that this would conflict with the law. He has decided to "commit a crime in order to expose a much larger one," he will say later.

In 2013 Snowden fled to Hong Kong - a copy of thousands of confidential documents in his luggage - where he finally confided in the journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. Shortly afterwards, he went public, followed by a game of cat and mouse. Snowden escapes from a hotel in Hong Kong and goes into hiding with various refugee families in the city before his lawyer Robert Tibbo organizes the escape - actually planned to Latin America. Because the USA is canceling his passport, Snowden ends up stranded at a Moscow airport during a stopover. After weeks of uncertainty about his whereabouts, the whistleblower was granted asylum and later a business visa for Russia. To this day he lives in the greater Moscow area.

"Legitimate Concerns"

Actually, so Snowden asserts again and again, he would like to go back to the USA. In his homeland, however, the now 35-year-old is indicted under the "Espionage Act", which does not allow him to present the arguments for his actions to a jury. In addition, the death penalty threatens - a judgment that US President Donald Trump also favors. But his predecessor Barack Obama was not particularly benevolent towards Snowden either. He was not impressed by a civil rights campaign calling for Snowden to be pardoned shortly before the end of Obama's term in office, but admitted that he had addressed "legitimate concerns".

Snowden received great support from Europe and received numerous prizes. But none of the 21 countries in which the American applied for asylum would accept his asylum application. Austria also declined for formal reasons. Critics also see political and economic pressure from Washington behind the decisions.

Asylum in Russia

So a hero nobody really wants - except Russia? In fact, it seems like Russia is the only safe place for Snowden right now. But "what does that say about our world if the only safe country for a US whistleblower is Russia?" He asked the question himself.

The fact that Snowden now lives in Russia of all places, which human rights organizations do not give a particularly good testimonial, earned him a lot of criticism. He is a Russian spy and has shared the top secret documents of the US secret services, of which only a fraction has been published so far, with Moscow. Snowden himself denies this.

Other critics accuse him of having duped US and British intelligence work. With his revelations he betrayed military and anti-terror strategies, exposed America's defense and attack methods against cyber attacks and thus played into the hands of the enemy. Snowden's defense lawyers mean that nothing has been published that terrorists did not already know.

Surveillance made public

Much more important, according to the advocates, is that he made a topic of immense public interest, namely the practice of mass, unprovoked state surveillance, public and created awareness for it. He wanted to show that something was going wrong in society. And how dangerous it could be for everyone if politicians who had such techniques misused them to silence critics, for example. His revelations should therefore be seen as an "act of civil disobedience in the age of total surveillance".

In any case, Snowden himself does not regret his step, as he repeatedly repeats in interviews. He goes to bed every night knowing that he has fought for his beliefs

Snowden's lawyer has no regrets

Robert Tibbo lives for his job: especially since the human rights lawyer helped Snowden to flee Hong Kong around five years ago, he has been working almost around the clock. The Snowden case made his life more difficult, but he regrets nothing, says Tibbo in an interview with the APA and the "Tiroler Tageszeitung" (TT).

"Above all, I do not regret having done what a lawyer should do," said the Canadian. "If you are the accused yourself, what lawyer would you like to have?" He asked himself this question again and again and then tried to be the best possible legal advisor for each of his clients, says Tibbo. Even if it was "very difficult, sometimes extremely difficult" - that was "part of the work, especially with such a political issue".

In addition to his most famous client, Tibbo also represents the so-called Snowden refugees in Hong Kong - those families who are themselves asylum seekers in Hong Kong and who gave Snowden shelter in June 2013 when the world puzzled over the whereabouts of the whistleblower. Since her identity became known in 2016, Hong Kong has been trying to get rid of her. The government is attacking the "most vulnerable section of the population", criticizes Tibbo. "And when that didn't work, they started with the lawyers."

Revoke admission

They wanted to revoke his admission as a lawyer and the immigration authorities had filed a complaint against him for "misconduct". He is "too close" to his clients and can therefore no longer represent them, so the allegation. But the lawyer doesn't think about giving up. "That's not what I want a lawyer to do - as a person whose life is in danger." In any case, he said he would not give in and withdraw because of threats from the governments. "I won't let the government stop me."

The total of seven "Snowden refugees" (four adults, three children) are, however, still "in limbo". For one and a half years they have been waiting for a decision after their appeal against the rejection of their asylum applications in 2017. Except for one case, the state is also financial support has been discontinued. "We are therefore dependent on donations," said Tibbo, referring to the aid organization "For the Refugees". "So if the Austrian population wants to help - we appreciate any support, any contribution is welcome."

"Political Apathy" worldwide

Whether the human rights lawyer would like more media coverage of the issues that Edward Snowden brought to the public - mass surveillance, protection of privacy and the like. - would wish? "Many people's attention is elsewhere in their everyday lives," said Tibbo, and governments concentrate on other problems. This "political apathy" creeps all over the planet. "For the general population in many countries, public awareness is simply not a priority, which is worrying."

Also that Snowden received a lot of sympathy in Europe, but none of the 21 countries in which the computer specialist applied for asylum wanted to grant him this is disappointing for Tibbo. He criticizes that "clearly great political pressure" has been exerted on these countries. The most likely scenario after 2020 - then the American's current visa in Russia will expire - is that it will be extended, so Snowden will stay in Moscow, explains Tibbo. According to his information, the fact that Snowden recently described Russian President Vladimir Putin as "corrupt" has not had any "negative consequences" so far.

Sharp words

He himself, however, finds sharp words for the US administration under Donald Trump: It has "obviously created so many problems for itself and for so many people in the United States that Mr Trump is concentrating on his political survival," said the Canadian. It seems that the "media frenzy" around Trump, but also his agenda and his missteps, "distracted attention from many important issues - like Mr. Snowden," says Tibbo. The whole world is seized by "how should I put it - presidential entertainment". (APA, October 17, 2018)


Five years later, the NSA affair is off the table

Chronology of the Edward Snowden case

The odyssey of former US secret service employee Edward Snowden began in early June 2013 when the computer specialist fled to Hong Kong and handed over top secret documents to journalists there. When he goes public, it becomes clear that he can no longer stay in Hong Kong. Preparations are being made for his escape to Russia. A review:

Early June 2013 - Newspapers in the USA and Great Britain report that the US secret service NSA (National Security Agency) has extensive access to communication data from Internet services such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple or Yahoo.

June 9 - Snowden reveals himself to be the source of the revelations in the UK's Guardian. He had fled from Hawaii to Hong Kong about three weeks earlier with secret documents. In Hawaii he worked for the NSA as an employee of the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

June 10th - Snowden goes into hiding. His lawyer Robert Tibbo is hiding him with other clients he represents in asylum proceedings in Hong Kong, as it becomes known later.

June 17 - European states, including Austria, call for clarification and transparency regarding US surveillance programs. Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama's polls, especially among those under 30, are falling dramatically. Snowden announces further revelations.

June 21 - US media reports that the US has brought charges against Snowden of espionage and theft. It is known that the British secret service GCHQ also monitors telephone and Internet traffic on a large scale.

June 23 - Snowden flies from Hong Kong to Moscow - the actual destination is Ecuador, where he has already applied for asylum, but he is stranded in the transit area of ​​Sheremetyevo Airport after the USA has canceled his papers and his passport is therefore invalid. The Greens are in favor of giving Snowden asylum in Austria, later also the EU MPs from the SPÖ and FPÖ, the ÖVP is reluctant.

June 29 - Media reports that the NSA is also targeted to spy on institutions and politicians of the European Union.

July 2nd - Snowden applies for asylum in more than 20 countries - also in Austria, but "only" through the Austrian embassy in Moscow. The federal government declares that Snowden would have to submit his application directly in Austria and that it was therefore invalid.

July 3 - False reports that Snowden was on board the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales are making the rounds. The plane is forced to make a stopover in Vienna-Schwechat. The then Federal President Heinz Fischer meets Morales at Vienna Airport. Snowden is not on board, however.

August 1st - Snowden is granted asylum in Russia and is able to leave the airport after weeks of confusion. The only condition that was rumored: He must no longer publish any secret information that would harm the USA. His exact place of residence remains a secret for security reasons.

Since then, Snowden himself asserts, he has led a relatively normal life and even has a job. His residence permit is limited in time, but has always been extended so far. Snowden currently has a business visa which was extended for an additional three years in 2017. How things will continue after 2020 is still unclear.