The Company Snowden Keeps

The Company Snowden Keeps

By Cathy Young - June 24, 2013

On Sunday, Edward Snowden, the former security contractor who disclosed information about U.S. surveillance programs that he believes violate civil rights, flew from Hong Kong to Moscow—one day after Russia’s leading human rights group was brutally thrown out of its Moscow office.  It’s one of the many ironies of Snowden being touted as a hero for freedom even as he pals around with one human rights-abusing authoritarian regime after another.

It started with Snowden’s move to Hong Kong, which he claimed to have chosen because of its tradition of untrammeled freedom—perhaps forgetting that since 1997, Hong Kong has been under the rule of the Communist dictatorship of China.  While it enjoys a special status that has left much of its liberal society intact (attempts to ban anti-Beijing “subversion” were abandoned a decade ago due to a public backlash), it is precisely in the area of surveillance that the trends have been especially worrisome.  In 2006, pro-China legislators passed a bill giving law enforcement vast powers to wiretap phones, install listening devices, and read e-mails—often without judicial approval.  A clause prohibiting the use of such surveillance against political opponents failed to pass.

Snowden’s second stop, Russia, is in the grip of an intense crackdown on dissent since Vladimir Putin’s return for a third presidential term a year ago (following more than a decade of steady erosion of hard-won post-communist freedoms).   This crackdown, documented by Human Rights Watch in a 78-page report published in April, includes draconian penalties for unauthorized protests; legislation requiring non-governmental organizations that receive any money from abroad to register as “foreign agents” and submit to punitive regulations; a vague new treason law that could target dissent; legislation criminalizing insults to religion; and widespread harassment and persecution of opposition activists and leaders.  One of the Kremlin’s most visible critics, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, is on trial for fraud in a case widely viewed as politically motivated (it was dropped by prosecutors for lack of evidence in spring 2012, then reopened).  Two dozen other activists face mostly trumped-up charges of inciting riots or assaulting police officers at a May 2012 rally which turned violent after the riot police intentionally created a bottleneck.

The attack on For Human Rights, a prominent watchdog group and a frequent thorn in the Kremlin’s side, is the latest chapter in this depressing saga.  The group, which has occupied its current premises in a city-owned building in Moscow for 13 years, was abruptly informed last week that its lease had been terminated and ordered to vacate the premises, even though, according to its director Lev Ponomarev, the rent had been paid through June.  After Ponomarev and seven other staffers refused to leave, officials arrived with police and private security guards to carry out the eviction.  According to eyewitnesses, they did so with shocking brutality: people were dragged down the stairs, some of them beaten (including 72-year-old Ponomarev) and physically tossed out onto the sidewalk. At least one person was reportedly hospitalized.  So far, staffers have been barred from reentering the office to retrieve either the organization’s equipment or personal possessions. Condemning the raid, Amnesty International noted that Russia’s authorities “are using every trick in the box to stop human rights activists criticizing their policies.”

One might argue that Snowden’s trips to Hong Kong and Moscow do not imply endorsement of what their regimes are doing.  Yet it is worth noting that, in addition to disclosures about NSA surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and emails, Snowden has also shared information about U.S. cyber-snooping on Russia and China.  It is now reported that before Snowden left Hong Kong, Chinese intelligence may have managed to “drain” the contents of his four laptop computers.  On Sunday, as Snowden arrived in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, the daily Izvestia reported that Russian intelligence and national security officers would “definitely” meet with him during his stay.  Russian analyst Iosif Linder, who specializes in the history of intelligence, told the paper that Snowden’s flight to Moscow aboard an Aeroflot plane had been almost certainly coordinated with the Russian government and “special services.”

This latest twist in Snowden’s excellent adventure seems to have cooled off some of his erstwhile fans.  Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), a strong critic of the NSA, has noted that if the whistleblower “cozies up” to the Russians and the Chinese, it will be “a real problem” for him.  But Snowden’s naïveté about America’s enemies was obvious from the moment the story broke—and this is the sort of naïveté that can lead to unsavory alliances.

Yes, the NSA surveillance programs have troubling aspects, and more transparency, accountability, and public knowledge on these issues is a good thing.  It is very much worth noting, however, that so far there is not a single known incident of either the Bush or the Obama administration using the national security apparatus to spy on, harass, or otherwise target political opponents.  (Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of conservative groups, however inappropriate, was unrelated to those programs; it was also voluntarily disclosed by the government itself.)  This does not mean that it couldn’t happen, which is why more scrutiny and debate is needed—and which is why Snowden’s disclosures have probably done more good than harm.

But this should not confer hero status on the leaker, or blind us to the bad company he keeps.  Snowden now appears to be headed for Ecuador, whose government Human Rights Watch lambasted just a few days ago for its assaults on freedom of the press—after a stopover in Havana, Cuba.  As previously sympathetic journalist Hugo Rifkind asked on Twitter: “What next? Tehran? Pyongyang?”

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at

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