This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
As a State Department whistleblower, I think a lot about Edward Snowden. I can't help myself. My friendships with other whistleblowers like Tom Drake, Jesslyn Radack, Daniel Ellsberg, and John Kiriakou lead me to believe that, however different we may be as individuals, our acts have given us much in common. I suspect that includes Snowden, though I've never had the slightest contact with him. Still, as he took his long flight from Hong Kong into the unknown, I couldn't help feeling that he was thinking some of my thoughts, or I his. Here are five things that I imagine were on his mind (they would have been on mine) as that plane took off.
I Am Afraid
Whistleblowers act on conscience because they encounter something so horrifying, unconstitutional, wasteful, fraudulent, or mismanaged that they are overcome by the need to speak out. There is always a calculus of pain and gain (for others, if not oneself), but first thoughts are about what you've uncovered, the information you feel compelled to bring into the light, rather than your own circumstances.
In my case, I was ignorant of what would happen once I blew the whistle. I didn't expect the Department of State to attack me. National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Tom Drake was similarly unprepared. He initially believed that, when the FBI first came to interview him, they were on his side, eager to learn more about the criminal acts he had uncovered at the NSA. Snowden was different in this. He had the example of Bradley Manning and others to learn from. He clearly never doubted that the full weight of the US government would fall on him.
He knew what to fear. He knew the Obama administration was determined to make any whistleblower pay, likely via yet another prosecution under the Espionage Act (with the potential for the death penalty). He also knew what his government had done since 9/11 without compunction: it had tortured and abused people to crush them; it had forced those it considered enemies into years of indefinite imprisonment, creating isolation cells for suspected terrorists and even a pre-trial whistleblower. It had murdered Americans without due process, and then, of course, there were the extraordinary renditions in which US agents kidnapped perceived enemies and delivered them into the archipelago of post-9/11 horrors.
Sooner or later, if you're a whistleblower, you get scared. It's only human. On that flight, I imagine that Edward Snowden, for all his youthful confidence and bravado, was afraid. Would the Russians turn him over to Washington as part of some secret deal, maybe the sort of spy-for-spy trade that would harken back to the Cold War era?
Even if he made it out of Moscow, he couldn't have doubted that the full resources of the NSA and other parts of the US government would be turned on him. How many CIA case officers and Joint Special Operations Command types did the US have undercover in Ecuador? After all, the dirty tricks had already started. The partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke Snowden's story, had his laptop stolen from their residence in Brazil. This happened only after Greenwald told him via Skype that he would send him an encrypted copy of Snowden's documents.
In such moments, you try to push back the sense of paranoia that creeps into your mind when you realize that you are being monitored, followed, watched. It's uncomfortable, scary. You have to wonder what your fate will be once the media grows bored with your story, or when whatever government has given you asylum changes its stance vis-a-vis the US When the knock comes at the door, who will protect you? So who can doubt that fear made the journey with him?
Could I Go Back to the US?
Amnesty International was on target when it stated that Snowden "could be at risk of ill-treatment if extradited to the US" As if to prove them right, months, if not years, before any trial, Speaker of the House John Boehner called Snowden a "traitor"; Congressman Peter King called him a "defector"; and others were already demanding his execution. If that wasn't enough, the abuse Bradley Manning suffered had already convinced Snowden that a fair trial and humane treatment were impossible dreams for a whistleblower of his sort. (He specifically cited Manning in his appeal for asylum to Ecuador.)
So on that flight he knew—as he had long known—that the natural desire to go back to the US and make a stand was beyond foolhardy. Yet the urge to return to the country he loves must have been traveling with him, too. Perhaps on that flight he found himself grimly amused that, after years of running roughshod over international standards—Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, "enhanced interrogation techniques," "black sites"—the US had the nerve to chide Hong Kong, China, and Russia for not following the rule of law. He certainly knew that his own revelations about massive NSA cyber-spying on Hong Kong and China had deeply embarrassed the Obama administration. It had, after all, been blistering the Chinese for hacking into US military and corporate computers. He himself had ensured that the Chinese wouldn't turn him over, in the same way that history—decades of US bullying in Latin America—ensured that he had a shot at a future in someplace like in Ecuador.
If he knew his extradition history, Snowden might also have thought about another time when Washington squirmed as a man it wanted left a friendly country for asylum. In 2004, the US had chess great Bobby Fischer detained in Japan on charges that he had attended a 1992 match in Yugoslavia in violation of a US trade ban. Others suggested that the real reason Washington was after him may have been Fischer's post 9/11 statement: "It's time to finish off the US once and for all. This just shows what comes around, goes around."
Fischer's American passport was revoked just like Snowden's. In the fashion of Hong Kong more recently, the Japanese released Fischer on an immigration technicality, and he flew to Iceland where he was granted citizenship. I was a diplomat in Japan at the time, and had a ringside seat for the negotiations. They must have paralleled what went on in Hong Kong: the appeals to treaty and international law; US diplomats sounding like so many disappointed parents scolding a child; the pale hopes expressed for future good relations; the search for a sympathetic ear among local law enforcement agencies, immigration, and the foreign ministry—anybody, in fact—and finally, the desperate attempt to call in personal favors to buy more time for whatever Plan B might be. As with Snowden, in the end the US stood by helplessly as its prey flew off.
How Will I Live Now?
At some point every whistleblower realizes his life will never be the same. For me, that meant losing my job of 24 years at the State Department. For Tom Drake, it meant financial ruin as the government tried to bankrupt him through endless litigation. For CIA agent John Kiriakou, it might have been the moment when, convicted of disclosing classified information to journalists, he said goodbye to his family and walked into Loretto Federal Correctional Institution.
Snowden could not have avoided anxiety about the future. Wherever he ended up, how would he live? What work would he do? He's just turned 30 and faces, at best, a lifetime in some foreign country he's never seen where he might not know the language or much of anything else.
So fear again, in a slightly different form. It never leaves you, not when you take on the world's most powerful government. Would he ever see his family and friends again? Would they disown him, fearful of retaliation or affected by the smear campaign against him? Would his parents/best friend/girlfriend come to believe he was a traitor, a defector, a dangerous man? All whistleblowers find their personal relationships strained. Marriages are tested or broken, friends lost, children teased or bullied at school. I know from my own whistleblower's journey that it's an ugly penalty—encouraged by a government scorned—for acting on conscience.
If he had a deeper sense of history, Snowden might have found humor in the way the Obama administration chose to revoke his passport just before he left Hong Kong. After all, in the Cold War years, it was the "evil empire," the Soviet Union, which was notorious for refusing to grant dissidents passports, while the US regularly waived such requirements when they escaped to the West.
To deepen the irony of the moment, perhaps he was able to Google up the 2009-2011 figures on US grants of asylum: 1,222 Russians, 9,493 Chinese, and 22 Ecuadorians, not including family members. Maybe he learned that, despite the tantrums US officials threw regarding the international obligation of Russia to extradite him, the US has recently refused Russian requests to extradite two of its citizens.
Snowden might have mused over then-candidate Obama's explicit pledge to protect whistleblowers. "Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government," Obama then said, "is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism... should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration." It might have been Snowden's only laugh of the flight.