There was a great deal to address. At the State Dept press briefing today, Associated Press' Matthew Lee and CNN's Elise Labott attempted to address the issues. It was not a proud moment for Jen Psaki or for the State Dept.
Matthew Lee: Can we start in Russia –
Jen Psaki: Mm-hmm.
Matthew Lee: -- with Mr. Snowden? I’m wondering if, since he has now asked the Russians for asylum, there has been any contact between this building and the Russians about your feelings about his status.
Jen Psaki: Well, I can tell you – I hadn’t seen – or I don’t have independent confirmation, I guess I should say, about any request he’s made. I can tell you that we have been in touch, of course, with Russian officials. Our Embassy in Moscow has been in direct contact on the ground. We are disappointed that Russian officials and agencies facilitated this meeting today by allowing these activists and representatives into the Moscow airport’s transit zone to meet with Mr. Snowden despite the government’s declarations of Russia’s neutrality with respect to Mr. Snowden.
Matthew Lee: So I’m sorry. You’re disappointed that they let someone into their own airport?
Jen Psaki: Well –
Matthew Lee: I don’t get it.
Jen Psaki: Well, that they facilitated this event, of course.
Matthew Lee: Well, why?
Jen Psaki: Because this gave a forum for –
Matthew Lee: You don’t think that he should have a forum? Has he – he’s forfeited his right to freedom of speech as well?
Jen Psaki: Well, Matt, Mr. Snowden –
Matthew Lee: All right.
Jen Psaki: -- as we’ve talked about – let me just state this –
Matthew Lee: Okay.
Jen Psaki: -- because I think it’s important. He’s not a whistleblower. He’s not a human rights activist. He’s wanted in a series of serious criminal charges brought in the eastern district of Virginia and the United States.
Matthew Lee: Okay. I’m sorry. But I didn’t realize people who were wanted on charges forfeited their right to speech – to free speech. I also didn’t realize that people who were not whistleblowers or not human rights activists, as you say he is not, that they forfeited their rights to speak, so I don’t understand why you’re disappointed with the Russians, but neither that – leave that aside for a second. The group WikiLeaks put out a transcript, I guess, essentially, of Mr. – what Mr. Snowden said at the airport. At the top of that transcript, it contained – it said that the Human Rights Watch representative from Human Rights Watch, researcher who went to this thing, while she was on her way to the airport, got a phone call from the American Ambassador asking her to relay a message to Mr. Snowden that – basically the message that you just gave here, that, one, he is not a whistleblower, and, two, that he is wanted in the United States. Is that correct?
Jen Psaki: It is not correct. First, Ambassador McFaul did not call any representative from Human Rights Watch. An embassy officer did call to explain our position, certainly, that I just reiterated here for all of you today, but at no point did this official or any official from the U.S. Government ask anyone to convey a message to Mr. Snowden.
Matthew Lee: Did anyone from the Embassy call any of the other groups – representatives of groups that were going to this meeting – that you understood were going to this meeting?
Jen Psaki: As I’m sure would be no surprise, and as you know because we even had a civil society event when the Secretary was there, we are in regular touch, as we have been today. I don’t have an update on the exact list of calls, though, for you.
Matthew Lee: But you can say pretty conclusively that this one call did happen, and that it wasn’t the Ambassador. So were there others? Do you know?
Jen Psaki: We have –
Matthew Lee: Did calls go to other groups?
Jen Psaki: -- been in touch with –
Matthew Lee: Okay.
Jen Psaki: -- attendees.
Matthew Lee: Yes.
Jen Psaki: I don’t have any specifics for you, though.
Matthew Lee: Okay. And the – and you have made no secret of the fact that any country or government that gives Mr. Snowden asylum or allows him to transit through, that there would be some serious consequences for – grave consequences in their relationship with the United States.
Jen Psaki: Mm-hmm.
Matthew Lee: Have you made the same – and presumably that would apply to individuals who would help him stay – help him avoid returning here to face justice. Is that – that’s correct?
Jen Psaki: I’m not sure what that exactly means.
Matthew Lee: Well, I’m – what I’m getting at is these groups, the human rights groups that are respected human rights groups –
Jen Psaki: : Mm-hmm.
Matthew Lee: -- which you yourself, as well as previous spokespeople have quoted from –
Jen Psaki: Mm-hmm.
Matthew Lee: -- in relation to other situations, have taken a side in support of Mr. Snowden, and I’m wondering if there are any consequences for them if you – if they aid and abet Mr. Snowden in staying away – out of the reach of U.S. authorities.
Jen Psaki: Well, we obviously don’t think this was a proper forum or a proper elevation of him. Beyond that, the way that I think it’s been asked, but also the way we’ve thought about it, is more about governments and our relationships with them and their aid or decisions to aid Mr. Snowden.
Matthew Lee: Right, but I guess the question is: If you think this was an inappropriate forum, did you try to dissuade these groups from going there?
Jen Psaki: From attending?
Matthew Lee: Yeah.
Jen Psaki: Not that I’m aware of, Matt. Obviously –
Matthew Lee: Okay. So the call –
Jen Psaki: -- they were invited to attend.
Matthew Lee: So the calls were just a reminder of your position. Did you say to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International that if you guys help Mr. Snowden, support him in some way so that – to keep him from facing justice back in the United States, that there would be consequences for them?
Jen Psaki: I don’t have any readouts of these calls. Our focus remains on –
Matthew Lee: Okay. Well, then can you say –
Jen Psaki: -- conveying to the Russian Government the fact that they have the ability to help return Mr. Snowden to the United States.
Matthew Lee: Did you tell them in the calls that you did not think that Mr. Snowden should have the opportunity to express his view?
Jen Psaki: Matt, I don’t have any readout for these – of these calls for you. We did --
Matthew Lee: Okay. Well, forget about the calls, then.
Jen Psaki: We did convey the broad point that I’ve made.
Matthew Lee: Okay. Well, then forget about what you said or what the Embassy people said in these specific phone calls. Do you believe that Mr. Snowden should not have had the opportunity to express his views at the airport in Moscow today?
Jen Psaki: Well, Matt, I think we broadly believe in free speech, as you know.
Matthew Lee: Except when it comes to this.
Jen Psaki: But we cannot look at this as a – I know we like to ask about sweeping scenarios in here, but --
Matthew Lee: No, this is not sweeping at all. This is very specific, related to one guy in one place in one city, one airport, one time. So I just – do you think that it was inappropriate for Mr. Snowden to speak publicly? Do you – I mean, not that – whether you’re disappointed in the Russians. Do you think that he should not have had the opportunity to speak publicly?
Jen Psaki: Our focus, Matt, is on how our concern about how Russian authorities clearly helped assist the ability of attendees to participate in this.
Matthew Lee: Mm-hmm.
Jen Psaki: That is of concern to us. Our focus is on returning Mr. Snowden to the United States. Beyond that, I just don’t have anything more.
Matthew Lee: Okay. I’m just – I’m trying to get – you are saying that this essentially – it wasn’t a press conference, but it might as well have been. And you don’t think the Russians should have helped to facilitate a --
Jen Psaki: Facilitated a propaganda platform for Mr. Snowden.
Matthew Lee: -- a propaganda platform. Okay. So this is, to your mind, something like them bringing out a defected spy from the Cold War and putting him on a platform and having him rail against the United States. Is that what the Administration believes?
Jen Psaki: I’m not going to draw comparisons along those lines. But let me say --
Matthew Lee: “A propaganda platform” is close enough.
Jen Psaki: -- that Mr. Snowden could – should return to the United States to face these charges that – where he will be accorded a fair trial. That’s where our focus is.
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Elise Labott: Well, is this a propaganda platform or is this kind of putting in train a process for asylum? Because last week, or two weeks ago, the Russians said that they would consider his request for asylum if Mr. Snowden would stop leaking material about – or leaking information about U.S. surveillance programs. Now, he wouldn’t do that before, and he tried some other areas for asylum.
Now, in this propaganda platform, as you call it, he said that he has decided to – not to leak any more information, or he doesn’t have any more information, but he’s done. So are you concerned now that this is him accepting conditions for Russian asylum publicly as opposed to just some kind of propaganda? I mean, is that your real concern here, that these are the conditions for asylum and now he’s publicly meeting them?
Jen Psaki: Our concern here is that he’s been provided this opportunity to speak in a propaganda platform, as I mentioned a few seconds ago, that Russia has played a role in facilitating this, that others have helped elevate it. But we still believe that Russia has the opportunity to do the right thing and facilitate his return to the United States.
Elise Labott: Well, but --
Jen Psaki: I don’t have any independent knowledge, as would be no surprise, of what he has officially requested, what has officially been --
Elise Labott: Well, it’s pretty public that Russia --
Jen Psaki: -- accepted or not.
Elise Labott: Okay, but it’s pretty public that Russia said that they would consider his asylum petition if he said that – if he would agree publicly to stop leaking information. Now he’s done that.
Jen Psaki: Mm-hmm.
Elise Labott: So is that propaganda, or is that publicly agreeing to Russia’s conditions and kind of moving the asylum petition along?
Jen Psaki: I’m just not going to make an evaluation of what Russia’s conditions are and whether he meets --
Elise Labott: Well, you don’t have to make an evaluation. They’ve said it publicly.
Jen Psaki: -- let me finish – whether he meets them. That’s not the point here. The point is Russia helped facilitate this. They have the ability and the opportunity to do the right thing and help return Mr. Snowden to the United States. It’s not about what the conditions are.
Elise Labott: But you don’t – I mean, is it – I mean, your concern now is that this is – that Russia’s – by facilitating – I mean, are you really upset that this is propaganda, or are you really upset that Russia is moving closer to accepting to this guy’s asylum?
Jen Psaki: Well, we don’t know that. This is a step that was taken today. Obviously, we continue to call for his return. They have a role they can play in that. Beyond that, I’m not going to speculate what they are or aren’t going to do.
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Matthew Lee: Can I just --
Jen Psaki: Mm-hmm.
Matthew Lee: In the conversations that the Ambassador, or whoever it was the Embassy had – not with the Human Rights people, but with the Russian Government --
Jen Psaki: Mm-hmm.
Matthew Lee: -- did you tell them that facilitating this appearance by Mr. Snowden was problematic, that you thought that they shouldn’t do it?
Jen Psaki: I --
Matthew Lee: Did you ask them not to do it?
Jen Psaki: We made our concerns and our view on Mr. Snowden clear.
Matthew Lee: No, but I – specifically about giving him this propaganda platform, as you called it.
Jen Psaki: I just – I don’t have any more to read out for you from the private phone calls, Matt, just that there – we have been in touch.
Matthew Lee: Well, I mean, did you ask the Russians, please don’t do this, we think he’s a criminal and needs to come back? Did you – did – I mean, did you ask and they rejected the request?
Jen Psaki: Well, Matt, we’ve been clear publicly --
Matthew Lee: Yeah.
Jen Psaki: -- countless times what our view is --
Matthew Lee: I understand that, but --
Jen Psaki: -- and we’ve consistently made the same points privately, today and any other day.
Matthew Lee: Right. But did you say that you would look negatively on them providing him a, quote-unquote, “propaganda platform?”
Jen Psaki: I just don’t have any more on the specifics of the calls.
Matthew Lee: Well, is the United States Government now in the business of trying to discourage people or governments from facilitating people having – meeting with human rights activists? I don’t get it.
Jen Psaki: Matt, this is not a universal position of the United States. This is an individual --
Matthew Lee: So it’s just in this one case.
Jen Psaki: -- who has been accused of three – of felony charges.
Matthew Lee: But surely – Jen --
Jen Psaki: This is not a unique --
Matthew Lee: Okay. He’s been accused. Do you remember the old line that we’re supposed to all know – he has not been convicted of anything yet.
Jen Psaki: And he can return to the United States and face the charges.
Matthew Lee: But he can also surely – people who are accused of crimes are allowed their right of free speech, are they not?
Jen Psaki: Matt, I think we’ve gone the round on this.
Elise Labott: No, I mean, it’s a legitimate question. I mean, you talk about even in Russia that journalists have been persecuted and political activists have been persecuted and you call for free speech around the world. But you’re not saying that Mr. Snowden has the right of free speech?
Jen Psaki: That’s not at all what I was saying. We believe, of course, broadly in free speech. Our concern here was that this was – there was obvious facilitation by the Russians in this case. We’ve conveyed that. We’ve conveyed our concerns. I’m saying them publicly.
Elise Labott: So you’re upset – you’re not upset about the press conference; you’re upset that the Russians facilitated it.
Jen Psaki: We certainly are upset that there was a platform for an individual who’s been accused of felony crimes.
Elise Labott: But what does that matter, really? I mean, people that are in jail or are on trial in the United States, they give press conferences or they speak out all the time. I mean, it sounds to me like what you’re not really upset with the act that he spoke; you’re upset with the fact that the Russians did something on his behalf.
Jen Psaki: I think I’ve expressed what we’re upset about.
Elise Labott: I don’t --
Jen Psaki: And you keep saying what we’re upset about. But I think I’ve made clear what we’re upset about.
While it remains unclear where Mr. Snowden will ultimately end up and how he will be able to leave Russia, U.S. actions to secure his extradition must take place within an acceptable legal framework protecting his right to seek asylum.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that "[e]veryone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations." The American Convention on Human Rights explicitly provides for a right of an individual "to seek and be granted asylum in a foreign territory, in accordance with the legislation of the state and international conventions, in the event he is being pursued for political offenses or related common crimes."
In the case of Mr. Snowden, the United States has interfered with his right to seek asylum in two significant ways. First, the U.S. revoked Mr. Snowden's passport. While this action does not render Mr. Snowden "stateless" (because he is still a U.S. citizen), it does make it extremely difficult for him to travel or seek asylum, especially in countries that require asylees to be present in their territory at the time of the request. Second, while the United States is within its rights to seek Mr. Snowden's extradition to face charges in the United States, diplomatic and law enforcement efforts to extradite him must be consistent with international law. It appears that U.S. efforts have prevented Mr. Snowden from receiving fair and impartial consideration of his application for asylum in many of the countries to which he reportedly applied. These efforts allegedly led to an unprecedented event last week when Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane was denied the use of airspace by several European countries and forced to land in Austria. Once on the ground, the plane was reportedly searched because American intelligence officials believed that Mr. Snowden was on board.
Human Rights Watch also notes the issue of asylum:
The US may seek Snowden’s extradition to face charges in the US. While seeking extradition is within a state's discretion, the asylum claim should be heard first, before a decision on extradition is made. Washington’s actions appear to be aimed at preventing Snowden from gaining an opportunity to claim refuge, in violation of his right to seek asylum under international law. “There's a long history of countries forcing asylum seekers to live for extended periods in embassies rather than reach a place of refuge,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “The US shouldn't place itself in that category.”
Human Rights Watch met with Ed today. Another group that met with him is Amnesty International which issued the following:
Amnesty International met with US whistleblower Edward Snowden at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on Friday. Sergei Nikitin, Head of Amnesty International's Moscow office, who was at the meeting said:
“Amnesty International was pleased to reiterate our support for Edward Snowden in person. We will continue to pressure governments to ensure his rights are respected - this includes the unassailable right to claim asylum wherever he may choose.
“What he has disclosed is patently in the public interest and as a whistleblower his actions were justified. He has exposed unlawful sweeping surveillance programmes that unquestionably interfere with an individual’s right to privacy.
“States that attempt to stop a person from revealing such unlawful behaviour are flouting international law. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right.
“Instead of addressing or even owning up to these blatant breaches, the US government is more intent on persecuting him. Attempts to pressure governments to block his efforts to seek asylum are deplorable.”