Authors: Edward Snowden
All of these people, whether they faced prison or not, encountered some sort of backlash, most often severe and derived from the very abuse that I’d just helped expose: surveillance. If ever they’d expressed anger in a private communication, they were
“disgruntled.” If they’d ever visited a psychiatrist or a psychologist, or just checked out books on related subjects from a library, they were “mentally unsound.” If they’d been drunk even once, they were said to be alcoholics. If they’d had even one extramarital affair, they were said to be sexual deviants. Not a few lost their homes and were bankrupted. It’s easier for an institution to tarnish a reputation than to substantively engage with principled dissent—for the IC, it’s just a matter of consulting the files, amplifying the available evidence, and, where no evidence exists, simply fabricating it.
As sure as I was of my government’s indignation, I was just as sure of the support of my family, and of Lindsay, who I was certain would understand—perhaps not forgive, but understand—the context of my recent behavior. I took comfort from recalling their love: it helped me cope with the fact that there was nothing left for me to do, no further plans in play. I could only extend the belief I had in my family and Lindsay into a perhaps idealistic belief in my fellow citizens, a hope that once they’d been made aware of the full scope of American mass surveillance they’d mobilize and call for justice. They’d be empowered to seek that justice for themselves, and, in the process, my own destiny would be decided. This was the ultimate leap of faith, in a way: I could hardly trust anyone, so I had to trust everyone.
ITHIN HOURS AFTER
video ran, one of Glenn’s regular readers in Hong Kong contacted him and offered to put me in touch with Robert Tibbo and Jonathan Man, two local attorneys who then volunteered to take on my case. These were the men who helped get me out of the Mira when the press finally located me and besieged the hotel. As a diversion, Glenn went out the front lobby door, where he was immediately thronged by the cameras and mics. Meanwhile, I was bundled out of one of the Mira’s myriad other exits, which connected via a skybridge to a mall.
I like Robert—to have been his client is to be his friend for life.
He’s an idealist and a crusader, a tireless champion of lost causes. Even more impressive than his lawyering, however, was his creativity in finding safe houses. While journalists were scouring every five-star hotel in Hong Kong, he took me to one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city and introduced me to some of his other clients, a few of the nearly twelve thousand forgotten refugees in Hong Kong—under Chinese pressure, the city has maintained a dismal 1 percent approval rate for permanent residency status. I wouldn’t usually name them, but since they have bravely identified themselves to the press, I will: Vanessa Mae Bondalian Rodel from the Philippines, and Ajith Pushpakumara, Supun Thilina Kellapatha, and Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis, all from Sri Lanka.
These unfailingly kind and generous people came through with charitable grace. The solidarity they showed me was not political. It was human, and I will be forever in their debt. They didn’t care who I was, or what dangers they might face by helping me, only that there was a person in need. They knew all too well what it meant to be forced into a mad escape from mortal threat, having survived ordeals far in excess of anything I’d dealt with and hopefully ever will: torture by the military, rape, and sexual abuse. They let an exhausted stranger into their homes—and when they saw my face on TV, they didn’t falter. Instead, they smiled, and took the opportunity to reassure me of their hospitality.
Though their resources were limited—Supun, Nadeeka, Vanessa, and two little girls lived in a crumbling, cramped apartment smaller than my room at the Mira—they shared everything they had with me, and they shared it unstintingly, refusing my offers to reimburse them for the cost of taking me in so vociferously that I had to hide money in the room to get them to accept it. They fed me, they let me bathe, they let me sleep, and they protected me. I will never be able to explain what it meant to be given so much by those with so little, to be accepted by them without judgment as I perched in corners like a stray street cat, skimming the Wi-Fi of distant hotels with a special antenna that delighted the children.
Their welcome and friendship was a gift, for the world to even
have such people is a gift, and so it pains me that, all these years later, the cases of Ajith, Supun, Nadeeka, and Nadeeka’s daughter are still pending. The admiration I feel for these folks is matched only by the resentment I feel toward the bureaucrats in Hong Kong, who continue to deny them the basic dignity of asylum. If folks as fundamentally decent and selfless as these aren’t deemed worthy of the protection of the state, it’s because the state itself is unworthy. What gives me hope, however, is that just as this book was going to press, Vanessa and her daughter received asylum in Canada. I look forward to the day when I can visit all of my old Hong Kong friends in their new homes, wherever those may be, and we can make happier memories together in freedom.
On June 14, the US government charged me under the Espionage Act in a sealed complaint, and on June 21 they formally requested my extradition. I knew it was time to go. It was also my thirtieth birthday.
Just as the US State Department sent its request, my lawyers received a reply to my appeal for assistance from the UN High Commissioner on Refugees: there was nothing that could be done for me. The Hong Kong government, under Chinese pressure or not, resisted any UN effort at affording me international protection on its territory, and furthermore asserted that it would first have to consider the claims of my country of citizenship. In other words, Hong Kong was telling me to go home and deal with the UN from prison. I wasn’t just on my own—I was unwelcome. If I was going to leave freely, I had to leave now. I wiped my four laptops completely clean and destroyed the cryptographic key, which meant that I could no longer access any of the documents even if compelled. Then I packed the few clothes I had and headed out. There was no safety to be found in the “fragrant harbor.”
For a coastal country at the northwestern edge of South America, half a globe away from Hong Kong, Ecuador is in the middle of everything: not for nothing does its name translate to “The Republic of the Equator.” Most of my fellow North Americans would correctly say that it’s a small country, and some might even know enough to call it historically oppressed. But they are ignorant if they think it’s a backwater. When Rafael Correa became president in 2007, as part of a tide of so-called democratic socialist leaders who swept elections in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Venezuela, he initiated a spate of policies intended to oppose and reverse the effects of US imperialism in the region. One of these measures, reflecting President Correa’s previous career as an economist, was an announcement that Ecuador would consider its national debt illegitimate—technically, it would be classified as “odious debt,” which is national debt incurred by a despotic regime or through despotic imperialist trade policies. Repayment of odious debt is not enforceable. With this announcement, Correa freed his people from decades of economic
serfdom, though he made not a few enemies among the class of financiers who direct much of US foreign policy.
Ecuador, at least in 2013, had a hard-earned belief in the institution of political asylum. Most famously, the Ecuadorean embassy in London had become, under Correa, the safe haven and redoubt of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. I had no desire to live in an embassy, perhaps because I’d already worked in one. Still, my Hong Kong lawyers agreed that, given the circumstances, Ecuador seemed to be the most likely country to defend my right to political asylum and the least likely to be cowed by the ire of the hegemon that ruled its hemisphere. My growing but ad hoc team of lawyers, journalists, technologists, and activists concurred. My hope was to make it to Ecuador proper.
With my government having decided to charge me under the Espionage Act, I stood accused of a political crime, meaning a crime whose victim is the state itself rather than a person. Under international humanitarian law, those accused in this way are generally exempt from extradition, because the charge of political criminality is more often than not an authoritarian attempt at quashing legitimate dissent. In theory, this means that government whistleblowers should be protected against extradition almost everywhere. In practice, of course, this is rarely the case, especially when the government that perceives itself wronged is America’s—which claims to foster democracy abroad yet secretly maintains fleets of privately contracted aircraft dedicated to that form of unlawful extradition known as rendition, or, as everyone else calls it, kidnapping.
The team supporting me had reached out to officials everywhere from Iceland to India, asking if they would respect the prohibition against extradition of those accused of political crimes and commit to noninterference in my potential travel. It soon became evident that even the most advanced democracies were afraid of incurring the wrath of the US government. They were happy to privately express their sympathies, but reluctant to offer even unofficial guarantees. The common denominator of the ad
vice that filtered back to me was to land only in non-extradition countries, and avoid any route that crossed the airspace of any countries with a record of cooperation with or deference to the US military. One official, I think from France, suggested that the odds of my successful transit might be significantly increased if I were issued a
, a UN-recognized one-way travel document typically issued to grant safe passage to refugees crossing borders—but obtaining one of those was easier said than done.
Enter Sarah Harrison, a journalist and an editor for WikiLeaks. The moment the news broke that an American had unmasked a global system of mass surveillance, she had immediately flown to Hong Kong. Through her experience with the website and particularly with the fate of Assange, she was poised to offer me the world’s best asylum advice. It didn’t hurt that she also had family connections with the legal community in Hong Kong.
People have long ascribed selfish motives to Assange’s desire to give me aid, but I believe he was genuinely invested in one thing above all—helping me evade capture. That doing so involved tweaking the US government was just a bonus for him, an ancillary benefit, not the goal. It’s true that Assange can be self-interested and vain, moody, and even bullying—after a sharp disagreement just a month after our first, text-based conversation, I never communicated with him again—but he also sincerely conceives of himself as a fighter in a historic battle for the public’s right to know, a battle he will do anything to win. It’s for this reason that I regard it as too reductive to interpret his assistance as merely an instance of scheming or self-promotion. More important to him, I believe, was the opportunity to establish a counterexample to the case of the organization’s most famous source, US Army Private Chelsea Manning, whose thirty-five-year prison sentence was historically unprecedented and a monstrous deterrent to whistleblowers everywhere. Though I never was, and never would be, a source for Assange, my situation gave him a chance to right a wrong. There was nothing he could have done to save Manning, but he seemed, through Sarah, determined to do everything he could to save me.
That said, I was initially wary of Sarah’s involvement. But Laura told me that she was serious, competent, and, most important, independent: one of the few at WikiLeaks who dared to openly disagree with Assange. Despite my caution, I was in a difficult position, and as Hemingway once wrote, the way to make people trustworthy is to trust them.
Laura informed me of Sarah’s presence in Hong Kong only a day or so before she communicated with me on an encrypted channel, which itself was only a day or two before I actually met her in person—and if I’m somewhat loose on my dates here, you’ll have to forgive me: one frenetic day bled into the next. Sarah had been a whirlwind, apparently, since the moment of her landing in Hong Kong. Though she wasn’t a lawyer, she had deep expertise when it came to what I’ll call the interpersonal or subofficial nuances of avoiding extradition. She met with local Hong Kong human rights attorneys to seek independent opinions, and I was deeply impressed by both her pace and her circumspection. Her connections through WikiLeaks and the extraordinary courage of the Ecuadorean consul in London, Fidel Narváez, together produced a
in my name. This
, which was meant to get me to Ecuador, had been issued by the consul on an emergency basis, since we didn’t have time for his home government to formally approve it. The moment it was in hand, Sarah hired a van to take us to the airport.
That’s how I met her—in motion. I’d like to say that I started off our acquaintance by offering my thanks, but instead the first thing I said was: “When was the last time you slept?” Sarah looked just as ragged and disheveled as I did. She stared out the window, as if trying to recall the answer, but then just shook her head: “I don’t know.”
We were both developing colds and our careful conversation was punctuated by sneezes and coughs. By her own account, she was motivated to support me out of loyalty to her conscience more than to the ideological demands of her employer. Certainly her politics seemed shaped less by Assange’s feral opposition to
central power than by her own conviction that too much of what passed for contemporary journalism served government interests rather than challenged them. As we hurtled to the airport, as we checked in, as we cleared passport control for the first of what should have been three flights, I kept waiting for her to ask me for something—anything, even just for me to make a statement on Assange’s, or the organization’s, behalf. But she never did, although she did cheerfully share her opinion that I was a fool for trusting media conglomerates to fairly guard the gate between the public and the truth. For that instance of straight talk, and for many others, I’ll always admire Sarah’s honesty.
We were traveling to Quito, Ecuador, via Moscow via Havana via Caracas for a simple reason: it was the only safe route available. There were no direct flights to Quito from Hong Kong, and all of the other connecting flights traveled through US airspace. While I was concerned about the massive layover in Russia—we’d have almost twenty hours before the Havana flight departed—my primary fear was actually the next leg of the journey, because traveling from Russia to Cuba meant passing through NATO airspace. I didn’t particularly relish flying over a country like Poland, which during my lifetime has done everything to please the US government, including hosting CIA black sites where my former IC colleagues subjected prisoners to “enhanced interrogations,” another Bush-era euphemism for “torture.”
I wore my hat down over my eyes to avoid being recognized, and Sarah did the seeing for me. She took my arm and led me to the gate, where we waited until boarding. This was the last moment for her to back out, and I told her so. “You don’t have to do this,” I said.
“Protect me like this.”
Sarah stiffened. “Let’s get one thing clear,” she said as we boarded, “I’m not protecting you. No one can protect you. What I’m here for is to make it harder for anyone to interfere. To make sure everyone’s on their best behavior.”
“So you’re my witness,” I said.
She gave a slight wry smile. “Someone has to be the last person to ever see you alive. It might as well be me.”
Though the three points where I’d thought we were most likely to get stopped were now behind us (check-in, passport control, and the gate), I didn’t feel safe on the plane. I didn’t want to get complacent. I took the window seat and Sarah sat next to me, to screen me from the other passengers across the row. After what felt like an eternity, the cabin doors were shut, the skybridge pulled away, and finally, we were moving. But just before the plane rolled from the tarmac onto the runway, it halted sharply. I was nervous. Pressing the brim of my hat up against the glass, I strained to catch the sound of sirens or the flashing of blue lights. It felt like I was playing the waiting game all over again—it was a wait that wouldn’t end. Until, suddenly, the plane rolled into motion again and took a turn, and I realized that we were just far back in the line for takeoff.
My spirits rose with the wheels, but it was hard to believe I was out of the fire. Once we were airborne, I loosened my grip from my thighs and felt an urge to take my lucky Rubik’s Cube out of my bag. But I knew I couldn’t, because nothing would make me more conspicuous. Instead, I sat back, pulled my hat down again, and kept my half-open eyes on the map on the seatback screen just in front of me, tracking the pixelated route across China, Mongolia, and Russia—none of which would be especially amenable to doing any favors for the US State Department. However, there was no predicting what the Russian government would do once we landed, beyond hauling us into an inspection so they could search through my blank laptops and empty bag. What I hoped might spare us any more invasive treatment was that the world was watching and my lawyers and WikiLeaks’ lawyers were aware of our itinerary.
It was only once we’d entered Chinese airspace that I realized I wouldn’t be able to get any rest until I asked Sarah this question explicitly: “Why are you helping me?”
She flattened out her voice, as if trying to tamp down her passions, and told me that she wanted me to have a better outcome. She never said better than what outcome or whose, and I could only take that answer as a sign of her discretion and respect.
I was reassured, enough at least to finally get some sleep.
E LANDED AT
Sheremetyevo on June 23 for what we assumed would be a twenty-hour layover. It has now dragged on for over six years. Exile is an endless layover.
In the IC, and in the CIA in particular, you get a lot of training on how not to get into trouble at customs. You have to think about how you dress, how you act. You have to think about the things in your bag and the things in your pockets and the tales they tell about you. Your goal is to be the most boring person in line, with the most perfectly forgettable face. But none of that really matters when the name on your passport is all over the news.
I handed my little blue book to the bearish guy in the passport control booth, who scanned it and rifled through its pages. Sarah stood stalwart behind me. I’d made sure to take note of the time it took for the people ahead of us in line to clear the booth, and our turn was taking too long. Then the guy picked up his phone, grumbled some words in Russian, and almost immediately—far too quickly—two security officers in suits approached. They must have been waiting. The officer in front took my little blue book from the guy in the booth and leaned in close to me. “There is problem with passport,” he said. “Please, come with.”
Sarah immediately stepped to my side and unleashed a fast flurry of English: “I’m his legal adviser. Wherever he goes, I go. I’m coming with you. According to the—”
But before she could cite the relevant UN covenants and Genevan codicils, the officer held up his hand and glanced at the line. He said, “Okay, sure, okay. You come.”
I don’t know whether the officer had even understood what she said. He just clearly didn’t want to make a scene.
The two security officers marched us briskly toward what I assumed was going to be a special room for secondary inspection, but instead turned out to be one of Sheremetyevo’s plush business lounges—like a business-class or first-class area, with just a few passengers basking obliviously in their luxury seats. Sarah and I were directed past them and down a hall into a conference room of sorts, filled with men in gray sitting around a table. There were a half-dozen of them or so, with military haircuts. One guy sat separately, holding a pen. He was a notetaker, a kind of secretary, I guessed. He had a folder in front of him containing a pad of paper. On the cover of the folder was a monocolor insignia that I didn’t need Russian in order to understand: it was a sword and shield, the symbol of Russia’s foremost intelligence service, the Federal Security Service (FSB). Like the FBI in the United States, the FSB exists not only to spy and investigate but also to make arrests.