Dear Mr. Snowden,
Inevitably, one way or another, you will return to the United States. Of that, there is little doubt.
In fact, the last thing the United States government probably wants is for you to come home, voluntarily, and alive. But if you do not return voluntarily, and soon, you will undermine and cheapen the very ideals to which you have so unquestionably allied yourself, and both you and your ideals will fade to the peripheries of history, at best.
You understand, of course, that until you do return, you will never enjoy the degree of freedom you did enjoy in the United States – as imperfect as that may be. While you are on the run, evading officials, you will enjoy no freedom at all. Even if you fare better than Julian Assange and do not find yourself cloistered in an Embassy somewhere, your every move will be under surveillance of one sort of another, and since you will never suspect exactly when you will be grabbed, you will never be free to do as you wish.
I suspect you are coming to these conclusions yourself while you are holed up in Sheremetyevo Airport (though I do hope you have taken advantage of the opportunity to enjoy some of the finest vodkas in the world).
The message the world is sending you, implicitly when not explicitly, is this: what you imagined would be a welcomed gift to the world is nowhere near valuable enough for a national leader to compromise his or her relationship with the United States, with the West. The world’s opinion is clear. Otherwise, you would have national leadership lining up to seek you out. Instead, you are received as a pariah, and that stance should inform your own opinion of your actions, to some degree.
You are not, however, a man without a country – the United States, whether you like it or not and whether any one of us likes it or not, is your country.
Returning home voluntarily is, in fact, in your best interest, and in the best interest of the ideals you hold so dear.
If you feel as strongly and as idealistically about genuine freedom in our nation as the fact of your recent choices would suggest, then returning to the United States with your head high is the only logical choice for you. If, instead, you choose not to return and remain perpetually on the run – and, you know, your flight from authorities of the United States will be perpetual, an imprisonment in itself, but without any trial – then you explicitly compromise the very ideal you intended to promote.
First, consider the outcomes if you do not come home voluntarily. No matter where you go, where you end up, where you might find asylum, the United States will continue to pursue you. While you might first imagine that the United States would not chase you into another sovereign state, remember that any nation on the shortlist of those that might give you asylum do not enjoy the respect of the United States or the West, are internationally weak and irrelevant. For the United States to temporarily endure one of those minor country’s contrived outrage when the United States captures you and brings you home is of little moment to the Administration and the national security apparatus.
Once you are captured and stolen home in the dead of night, any outrage of some minor South American country will be overwhelmed by the news of your capture. Authorities need only strategize for about ten minutes to figure out how to respond to Venezuela’s, or Bolivia’s, or Nicaragua’s reaction to your apprehension from within their country. More likely, at least as far as Bolivia and Nicaragua are concerned, your new country would ultimately cut a deal with the United States for your custody – arms, military training, some other kind of support: $10 billion over the next twenty years is a drop in the bucket, and not a promise we would need to keep, anyway. Hell, any of those nations would give you up just to gain a little favor from the United States – or to get us off of their backs. And, frankly, we could not care less about what Venezuela has to say.
In any case, when they come for you, more than likely the nation in question will know the mission is going to go down and, then, only feign outrage as they count the money coming their way. Everyone wins. Except you.
Certainly, if a respected nation or a nation with some international sway – Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, even Russia, among many others – gave you asylum, you would find yourself in fairly safe hands. But that is not happening. And it is not going to happen. And even if you can obtain – and take advantage of – asylum in Venezuela, Bolivia, or Nicaragua, discussions of Edward Snowden will dissipate over the next months in the United States and around the world. The NSA will weather the storm – they have, already – and little will change. American’s attention span is notoriously short, save but for a fringe group here or there that needs an organizing principal. But, for the most part, you will live in understandable and appropriate fear and the world will continue to world.
If you voluntarily return to the United States, however, you will have the attention of the world and as your stage choice media platforms from which to make your arguments. Even before you come home, you will have the opportunity to tell your story in your way and sway public opinion in your favor to the degree that you might. Indeed, more than ever before, you will be able to share in an organized, thoughtful way the vast information that you have with whichever media outlet you respect the most: NPR, Radio Free Europe, CNN, The Atlantic, Time . . . your choice.
Further, with the simple gesture of coming home voluntarily, you could very likely get an agreement from the Administration or Department of Justice that your ultimate trial will be televised. Imagine the windfall from that sort of contract – and that money, a reasonable percentage of it up front, could go to any organization or charity you think will most effectively advance your objectives over the next several decades.
T-shirt and bumper sticker sales, alone, would be completely out of control – every college kid and reluctant hippie in the nation would be wearing his “Free Ed Snowden” t-shirt, and those who not wearing them would be hoarding them, expecting a profit a decade later on eBay.
Additionally, you will have the best defense team in the United States representing you at trial – and you do want a trial, a big one that puts Manson, Rodney King (R.I.P.) O.J., and Zimmerman to shame. And while on one hand you personally will be on trial, on the other hand, really, it will be the NSA and the larger intelligence apparatus under a degree of scrutiny they have never imagined, that could very likely render them completely ineffective, at least for the foreseeable future.
While you are at it, of course, your legal team will file suit after suit against the Administration and its agencies on an array of constitutional grounds, among which at least a reasonable percentage would find their way to the Supreme Court of the United States while the remaining percentage clogs up the justice system and employees the next generation of young lawyers.
In the end, you will be found guilty, of something. Subsequently, you could be sentenced to a life in prison, and serve the better part of that sentence, if not all of it.
But while you are behind bars, you can continue to communicate with the world. You can write your own biography. You can supervise the screenplay of the Edward Snowden Story. You can ensure your share of the proceeds are invested and awarded as you see fit in a trust fund that awards scholarships and grants to those whose work will most effectively keep your ideals alive.
In short, if you come home voluntarily, the potential for you to have a long-term effect on history is tremendous. Right now, on the path you are traveling, your destiny is to be little more than a footnote. If, during the course of your inevitable apprehension you resist and are killed, you will not even be a footnote. And you will resist.
If you choose to remain on the run, your image, the ideals you represent, will continue to diminish. Your association with and subordination to second- and third- rate nations (that, again, in the long run, cannot and will not protect you) will only ensure the irrelevance of both you and your ideals over the course of the next months or year, at most.
Do not misunderstand me — I think what you did was absolutely wrong, and you deserve the punishment that the justice system of the United States can provide. The way you went about your leak was pretty bush league, at best, especially given the resources available to legitimately and legally blow the whistle, at least, at least as a first step. Additionally, the NSA’s data collection — and the data collection of other nations — really, is not a secret at all. I’m frankly surprised so many people seem so bewildered.
But you believe – no matter what anyone else believes – that your actions were of historic proportion and international significance.
In your view, likely, you chose to sacrifice yourself to open the eyes of a world under unwarranted surveillance of Orwellian proportions paying lip service to the freedoms and liberties we profess to hold dear.
But your sacrifice has not even started.
Sacrifice is first about courage.
And the sacrifice necessary to perpetuate your ideals begins the day you voluntarily return to the United States, the moment you peacefully but powerfully extend your hands for cuffing and face the music to which you it is your chosen destiny to dance. Remember the closing scene of Billy Jack.
And sacrifice is the only thing that might begin to make your efforts of any significant and respectable value.