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3 Opinions On Whether Snowden Should Fight From Abroad

Edward Snowden's new refugee documents, which were shown by his lawyer.
Maxim Shemetov
Reuters /Landov
Edward Snowden's new refugee documents, which were shown by his lawyer.

Edward Snowden's father, Lonnie, had a dramatic change of heart this week: Back in June, he sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder in which he told him that if the U.S. promised not to detain or silence Edward before a trial, his son would be willing to return to the United States.

But shortly after a military judge found Bradley Manning guilty of six espionage charges, Lonnie Snowden was on CNN andtold his son to stay in Russia.

That got us thinking about dissidents and leakers across the world and their decision to either work from the outside — think the Dalai Lama — while others decide to take the fight back home — think Cuba's Yoani Sánchez. We wondered, if Snowden's aim is to spark a conversation in this country about the government's surveillance where is he better off? In the United States or abroad?

We posed the question to three very different thinkers. Here are their answers:

-- Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management management expert, who worked in public relations in the Reagan White House:

"It's very hard to position yourself as a promoter of free speech if you're linked with Russia and China, and that really is the nub of it," Dezenhall said.

He said that while that's easy for him to say, the optics of pushing civil liberties from inside a country with a repressive regime "are problematic."

"Civil disobedience is about taking your punishment, not just making your protest," he said. "I do think there is an eye roll at the cultural level in him doing this from Russia."

Snowden, said Dezenhall, should come back home.

-- Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in the U.S.:

"If he came back here it would be a disaster for him in terms of jail conditions and the charges against him," Ratner said.

If you look at the way Manning has been treated, Ratner said, you'd see Snowden's future.

According to Ratner, a lawyer who has represented others who have revealed sensitive information, Snowden would likely be placed in a "communications management unit" where even his lawyers couldn't talk on his behalf.

"He wouldn't have any access to the Internet, would not have bail, no computer. He would be incommunicado," Ratner said.

Manning released secret documents, while Snowden released top secret ones. That alone, said Ratner, tells you the kind of treatment Snowden may face.

"He would be crazy to come back," Ratner said. "One thing I know for sure is he could put up a big fight in the U.S., but this country has been incredibly nasty toward whistle-blowers."

-- Jules Boykoff, a political science professor at Pacific University in Oregon:

"While he's not doing himself any favors with being in Russia, the alternatives are not very pleasant," Boykoff said.

Snowden, he said, should use his temporary asylum in Russia because he seems to be doing just fine from there.

Boykoff pointed to recent polls that show public support for Snowden. A Quinnipiac survey released Thursday, for example, showed that 55 percent of Americans believe Snowden is a whistle-blower, whereas only 34 percent think he's a traitor. A Pew poll back in June showed 49 percent of Americans believed Snowden's leaks served the public interest. In December 2010, 29 percent of Americans thought the same of the diplomatic cables leaked by Manning.

What's more, said Boykoff, with the partnership he's forged with The Guardian, Snowden is being heard even in Congress where the House was very close to passing legislation that would have ended one spy program Snowden helped to reveal.

"He's got quite a bullhorn," Boykoff said. "How much bigger can that bullhorn get?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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