Edward Snowden is in fear for his life. He should be.
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The NSA leaker had been holed up in Hong Kong but checked out of his room Monday shortly after going public, and has not been heard from since. He told Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman that the U.S. intelligence community “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information.”
“I did not believe that literally,” Gellman wrote, “but I knew he had reason to fear.” But why not believe it? Wouldn’t someone with Snowden’s background know what he was talking about? What does Gellman think happens in the world of secret intelligence? It is called the “dark side” for a reason.
Steve Clemons of The Atlantic overheard some men at Dulles airport he believed were members of the Intelligence Community (I.C.) say that Snowden and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald should be “disappeared.” OK, maybe these guys at the airport were blowing off some steam while waiting for their flight. Maybe it was just some I.C. trash talk. And even if they work in the intelligence apparatus they certainly have nothing to do with deciding who gets “disappeared” and how it happens.
But it does happen. One way or another the United States makes people vanish on a regular basis. That is the whole point of the NSA’s collection effort; locating the bad guys that need disappearing and developing actionable intelligence to make it so. Maybe they are rounded up by a foreign government. Maybe they are grabbed in an extraordinary rendition. Maybe they will find themselves on the wrong side of a Hellfire missile fired by an unmanned drone. But one way or another, when threats are identified, they are dealt with.
Snowden is a threat from the government’s point of view. He spilled secrets of great value to America’s terrorist enemies. What he knows would also be very useful to an adversary state. Snowden said he has “no desire to provide raw source material to a foreign government,” but why take that chance? He might change his mind, or it might be changed for him. He knows he is in danger, and if he finds sanctuary, for example in Russia, he might be willing to show some gratitude.
President Obama is no stranger to killing in the national interest. He has conducted more known or suspected assassinations than any president ever. The White House claims the president has the power to order the death of an American abroad, like Snowden, but Mr. Obama’s lawyers refuse to explain how or why this is constitutional. They simply say “trust us,” which these days is not their strongest argument. But they know the issue will not be tested in court because the only people with standing to sue are dead before they get the chance.
Once Mr. Obama signs a finding on Snowden authorizing his killing – or has the autopen do it – how could it be done? Probably not by drone. They are most useful for taking out targets in remote areas with established behavior patterns. Snowden is probably among people and moving. Drones also mostly require the cooperation of foreign governments, and if the target is still anywhere near China those permissions are unlikely.
Snowden would have to be taken down up close and personal. If he can be located and tracked, maybe he could be taken alive. He could be brought back for a treason trial, and sent to a Supermax prison for the rest of his life. That might deter future potential leakers. But in the course of a trial Snowden might spill more secrets, and the event would become a focus for domestic and international protest of the American security state. Maybe it would be best from the administration’s perspective if he didn’t set foot on U.S. soil again. There are still some secret prisons out there. He could check into Hotel California, and never leave. Or, he could just wind up dead.
In a May 24 email reported in the Washington Post, Snowden said that previous whistleblowers had been “destroyed by the experience” but he wanted to “embolden others to step forward” by showing that “they can win.” The government wants to demonstrate that they can’t, and nothing says “you lose” like getting disappeared.
James S. Robbins is Deputy Editor of Rare and author of Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity. Follow him on Twitter @James_Robbins