Edward Snowden's Fear of Flying is Justified

Snowden is a refugee, not a spy. But America has history when it comes to forcing down planes in defiance of international law

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US navy F-14 jets ‘intercepted the plane [carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers] in international airspace and forced it to land in Italy … there must be a real concern that the US will intercept any plane believed to be carrying Snowden to asylum.’ Photograph: Jim Hollander / Reuters/X00133

As Edward Snowden sits in an airside hotel, awaiting confirmation ofRussia’s offer of asylum, it is clear that he has already revealed enough to prove that European privacy protections are a delusion: under Prismand other programmes, the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ can, without much legal hindrance, scoop up any electronic communication whenever one of 70,000 “keywords” or “search terms” are mentioned. These revelations are of obvious public interest: even President Obama has conceded that they invite a necessary debate. But the US treats Snowden as a spy and has charged him under the Espionage Act, which has no public interest defence.

That is despite the fact that Snowden has exposed secret rulings from a secret US court, where pliant judges have turned down only 10 surveillance warrant requests between 2001 and 2012 (while granting 20,909) and have issued clandestine rulings which erode first amendment protection of freedom of speech and fourth amendment protection of privacy. Revelations about interception of European communications (many leaked through servers in the US) and the bugging of EU offices in Washington have infuriated officials in Brussels. In Germany, with its memories of the Gestapo and the Stasi, the protests are loudest, and opposition parties, gearing up for an election in September, want him to tell more.

So far Snowden has had three offers of asylum from Latin America, but to travel there means dangerous hours in the air. International law (and the Chicago Convention regulating air traffic) emphatically asserts freedom to traverse international airspace, but America tends to treat international law as binding on everyone except America (and Israel). Thus when Egypt did a deal with the Achille Lauro hijackers and sent them on a commercial flight to Tunis, US F-14 jets intercepted the plane in international airspace and forced it to land in Italy, where the hijackers were tried and jailed. President Mubarak condemned the action as “air piracy contrary to international law” and demanded an apology, to whichReagan replied: “Never.” The UK supported the action as designed to bring terrorists to trial.

In 1986 Israel forced down a Libyan commercial plane in the mistaken belief that PLO leaders were among its passengers, and the US vetoed UN security council condemnation. So there must be a real concern, particularly after Nato allies collaborated in forcing down the Bolivian president’s jet, that the US will intercept any plane believed to be carrying Snowden to asylum, either because he is tantamount to a terrorist (Vice-President Biden has described Julian Assange as a “hi-tech terrorist“) or simply because they want to put him on trial as a spy.

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