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WikiLeaks Attorney Praises Ecuador for Considering Snowden Asylum Request Despite U.S. Pressure

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The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks is reportedly playing a central role in helping National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden leave Hong Kong and apply for political asylum in Ecuador. A WikiLeaks activist named Sarah Harrison reportedly accompanied Snowden on his flight from Hong Kong to Moscow. In an interview with The New York Times, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was granted political asylum by Ecuador last year, said: “Mr. Snowden requested our expertise and assistance. We’ve been involved in very similar legal and diplomatic and geopolitical struggles to preserve the organization and its ability to publish.” Michael Ratner, an attorney for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, praised Ecuador for standing up to the United States. “They’re trying to bully other countries, not only by pulling his passport away so that he can’t travel, but by saying, 'Send him back to us. Don't take him in. There’ll be consequences,’” Ratner says. “But none of those are legal. They’re all just a big country beating up on small countries, and to the extent — or other countries that they just want to intimidate, whether it’s China or Russia or whatever. But the real point here is that some countries are willing to stand up to the United States right now. Ecuador seems to be one of them.”

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StoryAug 16, 2012“Back Off”: Assange Attorney Michael Ratner Urges U.K., U.S. to Respect Asylum Decision, Int’l Law
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our coverage of Edward Snowden on the run, looking for political asylum, the foreign minister of Ecuador, Ricardo Patiño, is in Vietnam holding a news conference as we broadcast. He’s holding it in Spanish, but the rough translation we have, he says that Snowden feels he will not receive a fair trial, that Ecuador will act according to the framework of human rights and international law. Again, Ecuador has received a letter, the president, Correa, from Edward Snowden, asking for political asylum. Patiño says Ecuador places principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights above its own interests. He says Snowden finds himself persecuted by those who should be providing information to the world about what Snowden has revealed. Patiño says all the citizens in the world have been affected by the U.S. surveillance programs revealed by Snowden. I’m looking at a rough log right now. Both our Spanish department at Democracy Now! is translating the news conference, and The Guardian has a live blog of the news conference. Patiño says Ecuador’s constitution says it will guarantee the safety of people who publish opinions through the media and work in any form of communication. He says, “No human being will be considered illegal because of his immigration status. We do not do that in Ecuador.”

We turn right now to Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He is the lawyer for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Of course, Julian Assange has gotten political asylum by the Ecuadorean government, and he remains holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London because the British government threatens to arrest him if he steps foot outside. He just recently met with Ecuador’s foreign minister, Patiño, who went to the embassy to speak with him.

Michael Ratner, what is the latest you have since WikiLeaks is aiding, legally, Edward Snowden, according to WikiLeaks, according to Julian Assange, where Edward Snowden is right now?

MICHAEL RATNER: I mean, WikiLeaks has said that they have given legal and diplomatic advice to Edward Snowden. They have also said that he left Hong Kong and that he was on his way on a safe route to Ecuador. That’s really all we know right now, that he is on—he’s left Hong Kong, and he is on a safe route to Ecuador, where he has applied for political asylum. And as you explained, they had given political asylum already to Julian Assange, and I believe there is a strong basis for giving political asylum to Edward Snowden, as well, which I can explain.

AMY GOODMAN: In the midst of all this, we understand the United States has revoked Edward Snowden’s passport. What’s the significance of this?

MICHAEL RATNER: No, the United States here is trying to bully Snowden, other countries, in particular, into trying to get him back into the United States. They don’t really have a legal basis for it. As far as I know, there’s no international arrest warrant for Edward Snowden. There’s these three charges that they unsealed in a—in a leak, apparently, that’s not even a spokesperson saying, “Here they are. This is what they are.” They’re trying to bully other countries, not only by pulling his passport away so that he can’t travel, but by saying, “Send him back to us. Don’t take him in. There will be consequences.” But none of those are legal. They’re all just a big country beating up on small countries, and to the extent—or other countries that they just want to intimidate, whether it’s China or Russia or whatever. But the real point here is that some countries are willing to stand up to the United States right now. Ecuador seems to be one of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you go on explaining what you were just going to say about the significance of what’s happening with Edward Snowden right now?

MICHAEL RATNER: What people fail to understand is that getting asylum is based on your persecution because of your political opinions. That’s something that’s recognized in the refugee convention, the asylum treaties, etc. All the world recognizes that. Even the United States recognizes that. And interestingly, political opinion is often considered to be, by many countries, to protect whistleblowers. Whistleblowers who talk about the corruption of their governments, the deceits of their governments and the criminality of their governments are considered to be expressing political opinions and are protected by the refugee convention. In fact they’re protected. Unfortunately, the only country right now that seems to be willing to protect people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden is Ecuador, at least the only one that’s come forward in the way Ecuador has. And the United States has actually applied that very convention and protected whistleblowers from other countries, whether—some countries, whether China or some other countries in Africa, and actually applied that. So, for the United States to now be saying we should get our hands on him and he shouldn’t get asylum is really—is really contrary to the law. I mean, his application for asylum, in my view, much like Julian Assange’s, has tremendous validity.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it is very difficult to really know actually what’s happening at this point. Technically, we don’t even know that he left Hong Kong. It’s not that people reported seeing him on a plane. Or do we know this, Michael Ratner?

MICHAEL RATNER: We only know it from—we only know it from WikiLeaks tweeting it and saying it, that he has left Hong Kong, on his way to Ecuador and has taken a safe route. That’s the main information that I have about it. And that’s the information we have.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, you are the attorney for Julian Assange. You’re one of the attorneys for WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks has been tweeting that they are providing legal assistance to Edward Snowden. Are you involved with giving that legal assistance?

MICHAEL RATNER: No, I’m not. In fact, I’m not at all. I woke up in the morning and saw that Edward Snowden had left—had left Hong Kong, on the tweet, and that’s as much as I know about the legal advice and assistance that was given by WikiLeaks.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, we understand that he moved on to Russia, and then there were reports, and Glenn Greenwald just repeated them, the reporter who released a number of the documents that Ed Snowden leaked to him—Glenn Greenwald said that he—the reports were, he landed in Russia, might have gone to the Venezuelan or Ecuadorean embassies overnight, and then was headed on to Cuba. Can you explain what the logic is of this route, Cuba as another transit point to then go on to—is it your understanding at this point, Ecuador?

MICHAEL RATNER: You know, it’s interesting to me, Amy. What’s happened in the world, certainly since the end of the Cold War, is the United States has been so incredibly dominant that it can bully—militarily, economically, politically—almost every country in the world. And it’s very difficult to take it on, to reveal, as these people have, as Ed Snowden has, the massive surveillance system on all of its citizens. So, how do people protect themselves when there’s really countries that are dominated so forcefully by the United States? And there’s very few places they can do that. They can do that maybe in a big country like Russia, which is willing to take on the United States on a number of issues, or they can do it in a place like Cuba, which we’re—you know, since the revolution in 1959, has been willing to be a haven for people who were taking on the United States and to try and find its own way in the world, apart from U.S. hegemony, and they can do it now in places in South America, perhaps Ecuador, as has been stated, where they have received the application for asylum, perhaps places like Venezuela, Bolivia, other places that are trying to get independent of the United States. So, the route has to be—the route he has to go has to be one in which he can be protected from the long arm of the United States, which will do anything it can to stop this massive surveillance system that it’s running from being exposed, where it can be debated.

And that’s one of the things I want to say about this, what Glenn said, and about the sadness of seeing all these politicians, Democrats and Republicans, and all the journalists line up and say, you know, this person has to be gotten, whether—whatever legal means—whether they consider rendition legal, I don’t know—is really awful to me, because what we ought to be discussing is this massive surveillance program on all of us—on you and I, on everybody in America, on people all over the world. And that’s what—when you hear Dianne Feinstein say, “Well, we need a balance,” even if you agree you need a balance, which I don’t think there’s a balance about my privacy versus national security, but even if you assume you need that balance, we don’t have anything like that. We have total transparency of everything you and I do, and every social interaction of all of us in the world. And we have complete opaqueness on what our government does. So what we ought to be discussing is not about, you know, where he’s necessarily going—of course, that’s a concern—or not about how the members of Congress are trying to say, “Let’s get him,” or the media is saying, “Let’s get him.” Why aren’t we talking about, in the national media or in our Congress, about the very fact that we have a massive surveillance world now in which the United States and the U.K. and other countries are controlling, by information, everything we can do?

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, what about the criticism of Edward Snowden that he had channels that he could have gone to to raise concerns, that there are protections of whistleblowers in the United States?

MICHAEL RATNER: You know, I think Glenn answered that forcefully. We know what’s happened to some other whistleblowers who have done that. Drake, Tom Drake, has talked about that, I think, as to what happened when he tried that. But I think the real point, and I think Glenn made it really well, is that every branch of this government—Congress, the courts, or the secret court to the extent they’ve approved this material, the president—they’re all in cahoots in this massive surveillance system. Where—and they’ve agreed to it. And you can see that now as they come out. So, where is a whistleblower going to go but outside to journalists? And that’s why journalism plays such an important and crucial role. I mean, that’s why independent journalism is just so crucial in getting at government criminality and government deceit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go to Geoffrey Stone, who we had on Democracy Now!, professor at University of Chicago Law School, former dean. He was the one who recruited President Obama to the law school before, of course, he was president, and is on the advisory board of the ACLU, was an early adviser to President Obama in 2008. He suggested the NSA surveillance program is both legal and constitutional.

GEOFFREY STONE: The Obama program, if we want to call it that, does not involve wiretapping; it involves phone numbers. And the Supreme Court has long held that the government is allowed to obtain phone records, bank records, library records, purchase records, once you disclose that information to a third party. And there is no Fourth Amendment violation.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, Geoffrey Stone, who also suggested the best way to protect civil liberties is by preventing future terror attacks.

GEOFFREY STONE: If you want to protect civil liberties in this country, you not only have to protect civil liberties, you also have to protect against terrorism, because what will destroy civil liberties in this country more effectively than anything else is another 9/11 attack. And if the government is not careful about that, and if we have more attacks like that, you can be sure that the kind of things the government is doing now are going to be regarded as small potatoes compared to what would happen in the future. So it’s very complicated, asking what’s the best way to protect civil liberties in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s early adviser to President Obama, former University of Chicago Law School dean, now professor, Geoffrey Stone. Michael Ratner, your response?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, my first response on the legality issue is, whenever I think of our courts right now and the way they’ve been cowed, really, by the, quote, “war on terrorism”—and I don’t think a lot of them, as we still see we have Guantánamo open and we have, you know, no action on drones—we have courts that are not exactly protecting our liberties. Geoff Stone, when he talks about the approval of the Fourth Amendment on getting what’s called metadata, you know, the data on the numbers I’m calling, the length of my call, when those were approved, they were approved on individual cases, not on a mass surveillance of every single phone call in the United States. And I would say that’s a very different thing, and I would hope a court would say that is absolutely no good, because when you’re doing that, you’re getting data that allows the government to do a great deal more than just when it’s getting a single phone—a single phone’s metadata. But in addition, of course, we’re not just—we’re talking about the metadata, but we’re also talking about the PRISM system, which you described in this program and Glenn has described so well in the Guardian articles, which is the way they get the actual content of emails, etc., and others of American citizens and people around the world. That has not been approved, and I would hope it never would be.

But I don’t take as my judge what the courts do with regard to these kinds of issues, particularly in the face of the war on terror. What we have is an illegal program, because what it’s doing is it’s hacking into—and that’s illegal—hacking into people all over the world, and under their domestic laws, under our own domestic laws, you can’t do that. These programs are not legal in any way that I can see. In any case, whatever we think of that, as Glenn and others have said so strongly, this stuff ought to be brought out, it ought to be debated. We’re in a critical next decade on whether the rest of our lives are really going to be simply transparent for the government to see, so that they can transmit information to every government they’re close to, when they want to stop a demonstration, when they want to stop opposition, etc. So, Geoff Stone is just giving an excuse for a massive surveillance system.

On the issue of has it stopped terrorism, you know, they claim that there’s 50 cases. They came up with nothing, really, nothing at all to say it did that. I mean, a couple of cases that they—certainly they were wiretapping people overseas, that came back into the United States—not very strong cases, not very strong cases at all. And you have to ask yourself, is this huge, massive surveillance system, of every single person in the world, conceivably—is this—is terrorism the real justification for it, or is it something else? Is it simply the U.S. and a couple of other countries, the U.K., trying to dominate what would have been the most democratic platform in the world, the Internet system, and trying to dominate it from a vertical point, a high country point on top of it, and just take control of all of our lives through information? That’s what I think is going on. This is not about terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, finally, we have 30 seconds. You have been to the trial of Bradley Manning, which is ongoing at Fort Meade. That is the headquarters of the National Security Agency. And you’re the lawyer for Julian Assange. If you can, talk about Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, their relationships.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, the people who allegedly—and in the case of Bradley Manning, admittedly—gave information to WikiLeaks were Bradley Manning and Jeremy Hammond, who hacked into the Stratfor emails, the private intelligence company—and, of course, Edward Snowden now in the last couple of weeks. And, of course, the relationship of the two to WikiLeaks is they were the sources for WikiLeaks. Manning’s trial is going on right now. It’s an outrage to me. He’s pleaded guilty to sentences that could get him 20 years. The government wants to go ahead and hit him with a sledgehammer and give him life. Jeremy Hammond has had to plead guilty to 10 years because, again, they over—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

MICHAEL RATNER: They have overprosecuted him. And Ed Snowden, really, to his great credit, has come out despite the sledgehammer the U.S. has taken to journalists and whistleblowers. And you have to be very, very proud of him for doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, we have to leave it there, lawyer for Julian Assange, president emeritus of Center for Constitutional Rights.

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“Back Off”: Assange Attorney Michael Ratner Urges U.K., U.S. to Respect Asylum Decision, Int’l Law

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