Will the U.S. Strong-Arm Brazil to Keep Snowden Out?

On Tuesday, the world woke up to a new missive from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and no one quite seemed to know what to make of it. In an open letter to the people of Brazil in that country’s Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, Snowden appeared to make a subtle appeal for asylum from the ...


On Tuesday, the world woke up to a new missive from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and no one quite seemed to know what to make of it.

In an open letter to the people of Brazil in that country’s Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, Snowden appeared to make a subtle appeal for asylum from the Brazilian government — and maybe hinted that he would help Brazil fight back against NSA surveillance in exchange for their protection. "Edward Snowden offers to help Brazil over U.S. spying in return for asylum" read the headline in the Guardian. "Snowden to Brazil: Swap you spying help for asylum," USA Today declared.

But according to Glenn Greenwald, the journalist at the center of the Snowden saga, none of these things are true. He’s been furiously tweeting to dispel the idea that Snowden is about to trade secrets for asylum in Brazil. 

In his letter, Snowden lays out the reasons why he decided to leak a trove of NSA documents. It’s a familiar story: NSA surveillance, according to Snowden, represents a dragnet system with little to no justification in the actual threats the United States faces. "These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation," he writes. "They’re about power." 

As a result of his revelations, Snowden says that several Brazilian lawmakers have reached out to him with requests to aid "with their investigations of suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens." But unless he attains permanent asylum, Snowden claims that won’t be possible. "I have expressed my willingness to assist wherever appropriate and lawful, but unfortunately the United States government has worked very hard to limit my ability to do so," he writes in the letter, noting a move to ground a plane carrying the Bolivian president and which was believed to be carrying Snowden. "Until a country grants permanent political asylum, the U.S. government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak."

Snowden critics will inevitably seize on the whistleblower’s promise to aid Brazilian investigations as yet another act of treason against his country, but the aim of this latest campaign is clear: getting Snowden out of Russia and into Brazil. Greenwald and his partner David Miranda are leading an effort to push Brasilia to shelter Snowden. "If the Brazilian government thanks him for the revelations, it is only logical it protects him," Greenwald told Folha.

But there’s evidently some confusion as to the status of Snowden’s asylum request. In July, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said that it did "not plan to respond" to his request at the time and declined to elaborate whether that meant his application had been denied. On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said that they had not received an asylum petition since Snowden arrived in Moscow; without such a request, the government wouldn’t consider granting him asylum. Earlier in the day, Greenwald had tweeted that Snowden "requested asylum from Brazil months ago, and it’s still pending." An article in Folha on Tuesday said that Snowden’s asylum request in Brazil "got no response." Meanwhile, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry told the New York Times that they are aware of Snowden’s latest letter, that they are monitoring the response to it, and that it is "not suitable for the Brazilian government nor the Foreign Ministry to respond."

Regardless of the legal wrangling over Snowden’s asylum request and its status, it’s not surprising that Brazil has emerged as the destination of choice for the whistleblower. The country has been at the forefront of efforts to push back against aggressive American intelligence gathering, championing, among other things, a U.N. resolution to guarantee online privacy rights. Thanks to a shift in public opinion and efforts such these, Snowden writes in the letter that the global culture of mass surveillance "is collapsing." It’s a not particularly subtle strategy of aligning himself with the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. "If Brazil hears only one thing from me, let it be this: when all of us band together against injustices and in defense of privacy and basic human rights, we can defend ourselves from even the most powerful systems," Snowden writes.

But convincing the Brazilian government to take him in still represents an enormous hurdle. Doing so would deeply antagonize the U.S. government and effectively poison the relationship between Washington and Brasilia. Snowden, Greenwald, and Miranda obviously understands this, which is why they have launched a highly public campaign to secure asylum for Snowden in Brazil. Their message seems to boil down to something like this: Together we can stand up to U.S. surveillance, but in order to so, we must first protect the man most responsible for undermining the U.S. surveillance state.

It’s an important battle for Greenwald and journalists like him to win. Potential whistleblowers in governments around the world are all but certainly watching the Snowden saga with utmost scrutiny. Can he s
teal the "keys to the kingdom" and escape the wrath of the U.S. government? If so, it will be a powerful message to other whistleblowers that they can do the same.

For Greenwald, then, the stakes are enormous. He has just embarked on a $200 million venture with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to launch a new kind of news outfit, one which will surely be focused on government misdeeds. If Greenwald can protect Snowden and usher him to safety in Brazil, his site will surely become the destination of choice for whistleblowers everywhere. Greenwald has already won an enormous victory this week. On Monday, a federal district declared that NSA collection of U.S. phone records all but certainly violates the Constitution.

As a result, you can bet your life that the U.S. government is about to exert enormous pressure on Brazil to deny Snowden asylum. When it was rumored in June that Snowden might be headed to Ecuador, Vice President Joe Biden intervened personally with President Rafael Correa. Expect more of the same if Brazil shows signs of buckling. 

Snowden is right: It’s all about power.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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