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What Does Ukraine Have to Do with Edward Snowden?

For your geographical orientation

Russia's takeover of Crimea in the Ukraine was apparently just as much a surprise to you and me as it was to the United States intelligence community, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. Even though the Russian military amassed its forces along the border, intelligence analysts believed that Russia wasn't actually planning to invade, because our agencies intercepted no "telltale communications." As we all know, Russia did invade, absorbing Crimea much as Germany once took Poland, and the best international response that could be mustered were a handful of laughably insufficient sanctions.

So what does this have to do with Edward Snowden, the infamous former CIA employee and NSA contractor who intentionally leaked a bunch of U.S. government secrets? Possibly nothing, but probably everything. I took a lot of flak from my readers for listing Snowden as one of 2013's biggest idiots for making his revelations from Russia instead of doing so from home, and for making the point that he should be executed as a traitor. My readers were certain that this was unfair, that Snowden would have been silenced by our evil shadow government before he could ever get the chance to speak, and that he had no choice but to leak American secrets from its most recent enemy superpower. I wonder, if it is revealed that Snowden has traded secrets with the Russian government in order to earn his asylum, would my readers feel the same way?

According to Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution, "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." As generally understood, "adhering to their Enemies" is defined as simply joining with a national enemy in an act that goes against the national interest. By this strict constitutional definition, I suppose Snowden isn't technically a traitor, even if he did share NSA secrets with the Russian government, as Russia is not technically an enemy of the United States. Having said that, it is hard to argue that such an act--sharing intelligence secrets with a major foreign power--is anything but extremely dangerous.

Edward Snowden
Traitor or not, he wears his glasses crooked

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. There isn't, as of now, any concrete evidence that Snowden has anything to do with the failure of the United States intelligence community to foresee the relatively bloodless invasion of Crimea, nor is it entirely obvious that the invasion is detrimental to the United States' geopolitical interests (though I can't imagine anyone arguing that it's a good thing for the U.S.). Indeed, the war-weary Libertarian in me wants to argue that we have no reason to oppose what Russia is doing, that it is between Russia and the Ukraine.

Let's deal with the "why care" question first. A popular meme going around is that the United States invades other countries all the time and gets away with it, but we suddenly lose our shit when Russia does it just once. This is a false analogy on multiple counts: (1) the United States hasn't redrawn its borders to include the countries it has invaded; (2) the United States, though it may maintain a military presence in countries it has invaded, respects the sovereignty of these foreign nations; and (3) in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, undeniably despotic governments were overthrown to make room for a more democratic one, but in the case of Ukraine, a democratic government is being overthrown to make room for the domineering thumb of Moscow.

"The executive branch of the Government did its utmost, within our traditional policy of noninvolvement, to aid in averting the present appalling war. Having thus striven and failed, this Government must lose no time or effort to keep the Nation from being drawn into the war. In my candid judgment, we shall succeed in these efforts." -President Franklin Roosevelt, September 21, 1939

As I see it, you either fight for freedom for all people or you wait while tyranny festers throughout the world. If you wait too long, you'll find that tyranny has grown so much that it starts amassing troops along your own borders. This is the lesson of World War II, and the reason I brought up Germany's invasion of Poland in the first paragraph. Back then, American politicians were just as reticent to get involved, and the debate over how we should react to it is in many ways indistinguishable from the modern debate over how we should react to Russia's invasion of the Ukraine.

No, I don't think the United States should have to be the world's police force, but I'd rather the United States have that role than a nation like Russia or China. On a world stage that has already witnessed two world wars and the global integration of the world's economies, we can no longer afford to ignore what happens half a world away and pretend that we can be isolationists without risking anything. This is why we should care about the Ukraine, and why we can't just sit back, say, "Gee, that sucks for the Ukrainians," and go back to bickering over the contraceptive mandate. As much as we tire of the responsibility, we must help the cause of freedom throughout the world. Yes, we will make mistakes, and yes, we will make enemies, but that can't stop us from standing strongly and fighting for the principles of liberty we claim to believe in.

And therein lies the paradox represented by Edward Snowden. We need people to stand up for freedom here at home, to hold the government accountable for its overreach and encroachments on our liberties. We need whistleblowers to reveal what's going on in the shadows so we can continue to have an open and transparent conversation about how best to maintain a society that respects its people. But when those people put themselves in a position to whisper in the ears of tyrants, they become dangerous. And yes, Vladimir Putin is a tyrant.

Vladimir Putin with dog
Granted, he can be adorable when he needs to be

Is Snowden helping Putin? While there's no concrete evidence as of yet, the circumstantial evidence is compelling, and he certainly isn't helping the U.S. Why would Russia hold on to Snowden, even after the United States president expressly asked to have him extradited? How did Putin so thoroughly pull the wool over the eyes of the most sophisticated intelligence agencies in the world? On NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said, "We know today no counterintelligence official in the U.S. does not believe that Mr. Snowden, the NSA contractor, is...under the influence of Russian intelligence services. We believe he is. I certainly believe he is today. So now we all agree that he's under the influence of Russian intelligence services today."

I don't want to panic, but if Russia continues to amass power and engage in Empire-building in defiance of international law without any real consequences and we are powerless to see it coming, the world faces a return to the Cold War, a time in which everybody could be wiped out in nuclear fire by the push of a single button or the turn of a single key. It may turn out that, if you can blame one single person for that possibility, it is Edward Snowden. Perhaps then, my dear readers won't give me such a hard time for calling him an idiot and a traitor.

-e. magill 3/25/2014

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