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Something extraordinary happened today. An American citizen sought and received asylum in Russia. The feds claim Edward Snowden broke our laws, that he must be prosecuted as a spy. Edward Snowden claims he is a dissident, that the feds will make him a political prisoner should he return to the United States. Russia listened to both claims, and sided with Edward Snowden. They took the right side.

For anyone who grew up during the Cold War, the language of Snowden’s case carries a lot of significance: citizen, exilespy, dissident, political prisoner, and asylum recall a time when the superpowers fought about issues like freedom, secrecy, and state power. These words and ideas all figured prominently in debates about human rights during that conflict. As the Cold War ground on decade after decade, and as the Soviet Union ground down any citizen it saw as a threat, we offered asylum to Soviet dissidents. Alexander Solzhenitsyn arrived here, and lived in Vermont until the end of his life. The Soviets imposed internal exile on phycisist Andrei Sakharov. Natan Sharansky went to Israel in the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan led the rest of the world to press for his freedom.

The world does not see us as a champion of freedom now. Now dissidents try to escape from our government. Bradley Manning was unlucky. Edward Snowden looked at Manning’s treatment and thought, “I will leave this country and never go back.” He knew when he flew from Hawaii to Hong Kong that he would never see his country again. Many around the world see the United States government as Edward Snowden does.

It’s extraordinary that the human rights vocabulary of the Cold War applies to Snowden’s case, with the superpowers’ roles reversed. Edward Snowden is not the last dissident who will seek asylum abroad. Bradley Manning is not the last dissident who will be thrown into an isolation cell for so long that his skin will never feel the sun again. We have seen a government throw off its restraints: the monster has slipped its constitutional checks. Only a few brave citizens like Manning and Snowden have stood against it. We need organizations, in the United States, who can help them and future dissidents.


(1) Did you see the photographs of Bradley Manning during the court martial? The feds do not care how unhealthy he looks! Skin so sallow, red patches on his neck and cheeks, no energy in his eyes or glow of life about him at all. That is what three years in solitary confinement does to you. When was the last time he saw the daylight sky, before they took him to Fort Meade? At Leavenworth, where do they take him during the one hour they let him out of his cell? The feds want you to know, it ain’t outside! They want you to know what his treatment is really like. You can see the cruelty plainly when you look in his face.

Bradley Manning

(2) The feds have their talking points together and have put their propaganda people on NPR. Their main point is that NSA surveillance programs are both legal and necessary: legal because they are subject to oversight, and necessary to protect national security. The oversight comes from a special court, and from congressional intelligence committees. Because everything about the oversight is secret, and nothing the feds say about what they do is believable anyway, the argument amounts to saying, “These programs are legal because we say they are.”

What’s more astonishing about these talking points is that the surveillance programs violate the plain language and meaning of the Constitution. What if the president orders the execution of American citizens without due process, another plainly criminal act the feds have undertaken? Does the act become legal because the president says the process for choosing who will be blown to bits is well regulated? The answer is no: the argument that supports extra-judicial execution is plainly nonsense.

The same holds for NSA’s surveillance programs. Anyone who reads the Fourth Amendment can see the programs are illegal. You do not have to listen to the feds’ mumbo jumbo propaganda on NPR, or be an expert in the Constitution, to know that the feds have decided the Fourth Amendment doesn’t count. They have decided they can do what they like.

Everything about their response since Snowden disclosed NSA’s domestic surveillance programs reveals the nature of their enterprise. Like criminals everywhere, they are secretive, self-righteous, dishonest, and defensive. They scurry around like rats to escape the light and protect themselves. They cannot, even for a second, see why their behavior is so bad. They just know they’ve been caught, and they have to think up a story fast. Their behavior would be pitiful and shameful, if they weren’t so powerful.

(3) Lastly, thanks to WikiLeaks and Sarah Harrison for helping Snowden escape the feds’ rabid effort to capture him. The feds did their best to destroy Wikileaks back in 2009 and 2010, when it exposed war crimes and introduced extreme embarrassment into our diplomatic relations with other countries. It threatened payment processors with retaliation if they handled donations to WikiLeaks. It pressed for Julian Assange’s extradition back to Sweden. It tried unsuccessfully to shut down WikiLeaks’ website. It vilified Assange and his accomplishments, only to make him a hero the world over.

Sarah Harrison

Julian Assange

Happily, WikiLeaks survived this campaign to fight another day. We all benefit because they didn’t fold. It is perhaps the first effective, international exponent of civil disobedience in the modern age, or in any age. What has happened to religious leaders, who were so active in the civil rights movement, the abolition movement a century earlier, and of course the anti-war movement of the 1960s? Where are business leaders, writers, governors and other state level political leaders who advocate resistance? We have seen individuals like Manning and Snowden stand for freedom, but an organization dedicated to resistance has been harder to form.

Until WikiLeaks. Interestingly, the first organization devoted to resistance has taken root outside the United States. The first organization to see clearly what the United States is becoming, and what has to be done to stop it, lies outside our boundaries. Moreover, this opponent is not a state. It has no bureaucracy, no armed forces or any kind of weapons, no land, virtually no money, and no voice in international affairs save its website and a few activists who have to lie low. Yet it managed to help Edward Snowden escape from Hong Kong to Russia. The feds have spluttered at their defeat. As for WikiLeaks, let’s thank them and keep up our hope. If this small, unfunded organization can succeed, perhaps the mammoth opponent that tried to crush it will eventually collapse and crush itself.