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Snowden asylum in Russia set to expire

NSA whistleblower requests one-year asylum extension

Edward Snowden’s asylum in Russia is set to expire on July 31. He has requested an extension for another year and is awaiting approval from Moscow. He was stranded for weeks at the airport in Moscow in June 2013 after the U.S. voided his passport. 

The former National Security Agency contractor made headlines after the London-based Guardian newspaper revealed documents that he leaked detailing the extent of the NSA’s surveillance activities.

During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Thomas Drayton spoke to Philip Holloway, founder of the Holloway Law Group and a former military attorney, and to Coleen Rowley, a retired FBI agent and whistleblower. Rowley traveled to Moscow in October to give an Integrity Award to Snowden, making her one of the first Americans to visit him. She believes Snowden did the right thing.

“In some cases, officials don’t want this kind of truth to come out because they want to control public opinion,” she said. But Holloway disagrees, saying that Snowden has put the U.S. at risk.

“In America we value our privacy so much so that we enshrined it in our Constitution, and we are protected against unreasonable searches into our homes, our papers, our effects, so yes, this is something that has got Americans talking, but he’s absolutely committed a crime,” said Holloway.

He explained that Snowden should have gone through the proper chain of command with his grievances. But Rowley says that such a channel does not exist.

“Previous whistleblowers, including Thomas Drake of the NSA, had tried to go to inspectors general, to the Pentagon, to even Congress, and unfortunately they were retaliated against. That is the reason why whistleblowing is so important, because there aren’t really any good avenues right now,” she said.

Though the White House wants to prosecute Snowden on criminal charges, his revelations have put Barack Obama’s administration on the defensive.

Obama said that “we have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals and our Constitution require.”

One of the things Snowden exposed was a program called PRISM, which gave the NSA direct access to customer data from companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft. The Guardian revealed the ways in which large companies worked closely with the NSA in return for payment of their compliance costs.

But now tech companies are responding to public pressure and consumer demands for more privacy and transparency. Many of them have change their policies to notify their users of government data seizures.

Another revelation explained the “three hops” rule, which refers to the degrees of separation between a target and his or her associates.

A Pew Research Center study found that the average adult has 338 Facebook friends. On the basis of three degrees of separation, one suspicious target could allow for the NSA to legally monitor nearly 39 million people associated with the first.

Much to the embarrassment of the White House, the data uncovered by Snowden’s leaks revealed that the U.S., along with the U.K., spied on its allies, including wiretaps on the personal communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

But some governments cooperated with Washington. In addition to Britain, Australia assisted in covert data collection, and Canada ran a two-month pilot program that tracked the Wi-Fi communications of travelers at its airports.

Earlier this month, former Vice President Al Gore praised Snowden’s efforts, saying the leaks “provided an important service.” He added that the violation of constitutional rights by the U.S. government were far more serious than Snowden’s actions.

Rowley agrees. “The Constitution does enshrine a right to privacy, a right to freedom of association, religion, speech,” she said. “What the U.S. was doing was completely illegal. They were violating the Fourth Amendment.”

Holloway concurred with both comments. “I will agree he has done arguably a service to the public because the modern day equivalent of our papers and our effects, of course, is our emails, our telephone calls, our text messages … that is protected by the Fourth Amendment,” he said. “But he went about it the wrong way. He can’t just go to China and Russia with national security materials and expect not to be charged with a crime.”

As to what’s next for Snowden, Rowley says that it’s likely he will be granted an extension because his life is in danger and nothing has really changed for him over the past year. Holloway said that if he is denied asylum, he will be expected to be returned to the United States and be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

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