6 Things We Learned From Snowden's Moscow Airport Appearance

For weeks, the international media -- FP included -- has been pouncing at every crumb of information about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Just yesterday, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Havana took a circuitous route across the Atlantic, sending the media into a frenzy and fueling speculation that the flight was secretly carrying Snowden and sidestepping U.S. airspace. But on Friday Snowden finally emerged from the Twilight Zone of Sheremetyevo Airport transit zone for a meeting with human rights groups in Russia.

Members of the media were not invited to the meeting, but reports of what Snowden had to say are quickly filtering out. Here's what we learned.

Snowden will submit an asylum application to Russia today.

Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin said that Snowden was welcome to stay in Russia on the condition that he stop leaking sensitive material to the press. "If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: he has to stop his work aimed at damaging our U.S. partners, no matter how strange this sounds coming from me," Putin told reporters. As a result, Snowden withdrew his application for asylum.

Now, Snowden is once more applying for asylum in Russia. As Snowden explained it Friday, he disputes the notion that his actions are doing damage to the United States. As a result, Putin's condition doesn't apply. Here's how the New York Times Ellen Barry explained it based on her sources inside the meeting: 

But whether the Russian government will accept that logic is far from certain. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Friday that Putin's condition remains in place if Snowden is allowed to stay in Russia.

But Snowden doesn't want to stay in Russia in the long run.

Though he's applying for asylum in Russia, that doesn't mean he'd like to end up there permanently:

Snowden said that he has received offers of asylum and support from Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua and thanked those countries for their assistance. The problem Snowden, explained, is that he faces travel restrictions in reaching those countries and fears he will be apprehended en route. "I am only in a position to accept Russia's offer because of my inability to travel," Snowden said. As the New York Times reported Friday, the U.S. government is currently engaged in an intense lobbying campaign to convince Latin American countries to turn down Snowden's asylum request -- an effort that the paper argues is yielding mixed results.

According to WikiLeaks, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, called one of the participants in the meeting on her way to the airport and asked that she relay a message to Snowden that the U.S. government doesn't consider him a whistleblower but rather as someone who broke the law.

Snowden has been living at the airport.

Amid the wall-to-wall coverage of the Snowden saga, one recurring mystery has been his exact whereabouts. That was cleared up Friday: He's been staying at the airport's capsule hotel. In an interview with RT, Tanya Lokshina, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who was present at the meeting, said that Snowden considers the living conditions there to be fine and that he feels safe.

We have new Snowden images!

For a Snowden-obsessed media, the lack of new images of the whistleblower has been immensely frustrating. Well, now we have them. At the top of this post you can see Snowden seated at the meeting with his WikiLeaks lawyer, Sarah Harrison, seated to his immediate right. Below, another image of Snowden:

It's hard not to notice how remarkably skinny Snowden appears to be. Russia's human rights ambassador, Vladimir Lukin, also pondered that fact:

Snowden has a well-developed sense of irony.

In his statement to the human rights workers gathered at Sheremetyevo, Snowden made a bald-faced attempt to win friends among his would-be protecters, applauding Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador "for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless." Nevermind that this list of countries reads something like a rogue's gallery of human rights abusers. Russia just posthumously convicted the whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky for fraud, and Venezuela has refused to carry out a recount in that country's squeaker of a presidential election.

The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran puts Snowden's statement into context: 

Snowden read a statement to the human rights activists at the meeting.

Here it is, in full:

Hello. My name is Ed Snowden. A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort. I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone's communications at any time. That is the power to change people's fates.

It is also a serious violation of the law. The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. While the US Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair. These rulings simply corrupt the most basic notion of justice - that it must be seen to be done. The immoral cannot be made moral through the use of secret law.

I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg in 1945: "Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring."

Accordingly, I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing. I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell US secrets. I did not partner with any foreign government to guarantee my safety. Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice.

That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets.

Since that time, the government and intelligence services of the United States of America have attempted to make an example of me, a warning to all others who might speak out as I have. I have been made stateless and hounded for my act of political expression. The United States Government has placed me on no-fly lists. It demanded Hong Kong return me outside of the framework of its laws, in direct violation of the principle of non-refoulement - the Law of Nations. It has threatened with sanctions countries who would stand up for my human rights and the UN asylum system. It has even taken the unprecedented step of ordering military allies to ground a Latin American president's plane in search for a political refugee. These dangerous escalations represent a threat not just to the dignity of Latin America, but to the basic rights shared by every person, every nation, to live free from persecution, and to seek and enjoy asylum.

Yet even in the face of this historically disproportionate aggression, countries around the world have offered support and asylum. These nations, including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world. It is my intention to travel to each of these countries to extend my personal thanks to their people and leaders.

I announce today my formal acceptance of all offers of support or asylum I have been extended and all others that may be offered in the future. With, for example, the grant of asylum provided by Venezuela's President Maduro, my asylee status is now formal, and no state has a basis by which to limit or interfere with my right to enjoy that asylum. As we have seen, however, some governments in Western European and North American states have demonstrated a willingness to act outside the law, and this behavior persists today. This unlawful threat makes it impossible for me to travel to Latin America and enjoy the asylum granted there in accordance with our shared rights.

This willingness by powerful states to act extra-legally represents a threat to all of us, and must not be allowed to succeed. Accordingly, I ask for your assistance in requesting guarantees of safe passage from the relevant nations in securing my travel to Latin America, as well as requesting asylum in Russia until such time as these states accede to law and my legal travel is permitted. I will be submitting my request to Russia today, and hope it will be accepted favorably.

If you have any questions, I will answer what I can.

Thank you.


Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch

National Security

Microsoft Leaks Reveal Depth of NSA's Ties with Silicon Valley

Judging by the latest revelations made by Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency has Microsoft firmly in its pocket.

According to an explosive Guardian report on Thursday, the NSA was granted access to Microsoft's new free email service,, prior to its rollout so that the agency could circumvent the service's encryption protocol and intercept chats on the web portal. Moreover, Microsoft allegedly worked hand-in-glove with the agency to give the NSA the ability to intercept video calls made via Skype.

Skype's reputation as a fervent protector of privacy rights has been dying a slow death in recent years, and Thursday's report may have been its last gasp. It was only five years ago that Skype claimed it did not have the ability to intercept calls. "Because of Skype's peer-to-peer architecture and encryption techniques, Skype would not be able to comply with [a wiretap request]," a company spokesperson told CNET in 2008.

But since being purchased by Microsoft in 2011, the company has reportedly been quietly re-engineering its network infrastructure -- all the while making oblique denials that it has been doing so -- in order to facilitate just such activity. Thursday's report appears to confirm what many observers have suspected all along.

These latest revelations also add greater detail about the operations of the NSA's PRISM program, a collection system that allows the agency to gather the content of Internet communications from its corporate partners. According to the report, the system is, for example, able to circumvent and Hotmail's encryption systems by gaining access to communications at a stage before they are encrypted.

While Thursday's report does little to settle the debate over the extent to which PRISM gives the government access to technology companies' servers, it does portray the NSA and FBI, which serves as the former's liaison with Silicon Valley on PRISM, as intimately aware of Microsoft's operations. According to the Guardian, the NSA became concerned that it would be unable to intercept encrypted chats as soon as Microsoft began testing the service, which is part of its free email client, Those concerns were resolved through the creation of a system that allowed the agency to circumvent chat encryption. The report also details how the FBI worked to give PRISM access to SkyDrive, Microsoft's free cloud storage client. 

Despite the NSA's concerns over Microsoft's encryption practices, a significant portion of email traffic on the web is never encrypted to begin with -- and the small portion that is uses fairly weak encryption methods. As CNET noted in June, "Google is alone in using strong encryption, known as SMTP-TLS, to fully armor e-mail connections for its users, as long as the other company's server is willing to encrypt as well." By using weak encryption methods, many Internet companies effectively leave the door wide open for the NSA to snoop on their customers' emails.

While Thursday's report does not deal with Microsoft's business tools -- its Outlook business email client and cloud computing services, for example -- the close ties between the company and the NSA raise questions about whether these products fall within the scope of the relationship as well. The report also comes on the heels of revelations earlier this week that the agency had targeted some "commercial secrets" in its spying activities in Latin America -- the most significant indication yet that the NSA isn't just sweeping up national security information.

If it is revealed that the NSA is able to target businesses in the same way that it targets individuals, the pushback against the agency's spying activities could swell. The revelation that kicked off the Edward Snowden saga involved telephone records from Verizon's business unit, but since then the revelations have largely focused on the NSA's activities against individuals and other governments.

By all accounts, the technology firms implicated in this program have little choice but to comply with the NSA's requests. In a statement in which Microsoft is all too clearly frustrated at its inability to disclose more information about its participation, the company said that "we take our commitments to our customers and to compliance with applicable law very seriously, so we provide customer data only in response to legal processes."

"There are aspects of this debate that we wish we were able to discuss more freely," the statement continued. "That's why we've argued for additional transparency that would help everyone understand and debate these important issues."

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images