The powerful chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee has condemned Edward Snowden’s plans to seek political asylum in Switzerland, whose attorney general says the former NSA contractor could be immune from U.S. extradition requests if he manages to make it to the central European country without being arrested.
"Edward Snowden is a traitor and should be brought back to the United States to face trial," Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican head of the panel, told Foreign Policy. "We should not allow him to trade our intelligence community’s sources and methods for safe haven in other countries."
This week, Switzerland’s attorney general completed a legal opinion on the question of whether Snowden could be granted political asylum if he traveled to Switzerland to testify about the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities in the Swiss homeland. The AG’s office concluded that Snowden would be given asylum as long as prior obligations made by higher-level Swiss officials did not take priority.
The document did not spell out what those obligations might be, but Snowden’s lawyer in Zurich, Marcel Bosonnet, responded positively to the legal opinion. "The legal requirements for safe conduct are met," he told Swiss media, noting that Snowden is interested in applying for asylum in Switzerland.
That has triggered strong objections by national security hawks who feel that Snowden belongs behind bars, not galavanting across Europe to divulge more information about the American surveillance state.
"Mr. Snowden’s leaks have done immeasurable damage to our national security, causing billions of dollars of damage to us," said McCaul (R-Texas), without explaining the multibillion dollar figure. "I hope he decides to return to the United States of his own accord to defend his actions."
But Snowden’s return to the United States is not likely to happen anytime soon.
Last month, the Russian government told Snowden he could remain in the country for another three years. He wasn’t given political asylum, but received an extension of the temporary residence status awarded to him last year.
Jesselyn Radack, a national security lawyer and close confidante of Snowden’s, said Snowden won’t travel to any country where his security could be compromised. "His safety is of paramount importance," she told Foreign Policy.
Still, a trip to Switzerland could be in the works so long as a few more logistical and legal concerns are resolved, said Radack. "It’s definitely an option and a development we welcome," she said. "It’s a pretty brave opinion, especially given how other western European countries have reacted." To finalize the trip, Snowden’s lawyers want to ensure that if he provides sworn testimony to the Swiss government, authorities won’t feel obligated to turn around and take criminal action against him. Radack said they also need to determine how Snowden can safely travel to the country without foreign governments attempting to arrest him and return him to the U.S. — a scenario that’s not far-fetched, given the controversial rerouting of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane last summer.
Following Snowden’s 2013 disclosures of classified surveillance tactics, a number of political figures around the world have expressed an interest in hosting him for testimony on NSA spying, including in Germany. However, due to concerns about being extradited to the United States on espionage charges, Snowden has opted not to leave Russia. In the case of Switzerland, Radack said no other country has given more assurances for safety in exchange for testimony, making it a top consideration for Snowden.
"It seems to be the most solid offer from a country this point," said Radack. "Protection in exchange for testimony."