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Frequently asked questions

Who is Edward Snowden and what did he do?

Edward Snowden is a 30-year-old whistleblower and former NSA contractor. He left his home in Hawaii in May 2013, travelling to Hong Kong to leak documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald. At the time of his departure from the US, Snowden worked as a Booz Allen Hamilton systems analyst doing contract work for the NSA. The documents he revealed detailed secret NSA programs and capabilities that have been and continue to be used to collect and store personal communications both within the US and abroad.

Why is this information important?

Documents revealed by Snowden show that the US intelligence community and its partners – including the UK, Israeli and German spy agencies – are involved in warrantless mass surveillance of citizens domestically and abroad. Numerous documents show that, beyond the espionage performed for counterterrorism purposes, the NSA and its partners carried out political and industrial espionage, including the bugging of EU and UN buildings and the collection of phone and email data from Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy. To read more about the revelations, see the Revelations page.

Despite the many millions of people that the transnational surveillance systems affect, these have been constructed without the knowledge, authorisation or scrutiny of the elected legislative bodies of the US and its partner countries – much less the public. Snowden felt that this important information should be democratised:

“I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.'” (Snowden, June 2013)

What impact have Snowden’s revelations had?

  • Investigation: Snowden’s revelations have led to numerous investigations into US surveillance and violations of human rights to privacy and freedom of information. The US, the EU and Brazil all have ongoing investigations into mass surveillance.
  • Transparency: In a press conference on 9 August 2013, President Obama acknowledged the need for greater transparency regarding US surveillance programmes, asking the intelligence community “to make public as much information about these programs as possible”. A large number of documents have subsequently been released by the US government, including a 2011 FISA Court opinion that ruled some NSA surveillance actions were unconstitutional.
  • Legislative reform: Nineteen proposals for substantial legislative reform of laws enabling US surveillance are currently pending in the US. Many of the bills include changes to the FISA Court and proposals for more transparent proceedings.
  • Lawsuits: Formal complaints have been filed against the US and UK governments for breach of privacy laws and rights in France, Germany, the US, the UK and with the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, lawsuits have been filed against the US government by Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Linkedin and Dropbox to allow the companies to disclose more information about their compliance with national security requests.
  • An informed public debate: Snowden’s revelations have informed the public of the surveillance programmes that have been secretly collecting mass phone and internet data, and this democratisation of knowledge offers the public new choices about their behaviours. Media coverage of surveillance and related topics has grown substantially since June 2013. A number of polls also reflect a shift in US public opinion regarding surveillance and the US government policies’ impact on civil liberties.

Read more about the investigations, transparency measures, legislative reform, complaints and public awareness generated due to Snowden’s revelations on our Impact page.

Why doesn’t Edward Snowden release all the documents at once?

As stated by Glenn Greenwald in various places, Edward Snowden gave documents to journalists for the express purpose of allowing them to vet and analyse the documents before releasing what they deem appropriate.

Why does the US want Edward Snowden extradited?

Edward Snowden’s revelations of secret mass surveillance by the NSA and its national security-sector contractors have greatly embarrassed the US government. Attempts to extradite him to stand trial in the United States come against a background of systemic overclassification of information, increasing secrecy in the courts and a harsh crackdown on national security journalism, centred around investigations of unauthorised leaks. The Obama administration has prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act for leaks to the press than all previous administrations combined.

What are the current charges on the US indictment for Edward Snowden?

Edward Snowden has been charged by the US government with theft of government property (18 USC § 641), unauthorised communication of national defense information (18 USC § 793(d)) and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorised person (18 USC § 798(a)(3)).

What are the threats facing Edward Snowden and what actions have been taken against him?

Edward Snowden has been charged by the US government with theft and two charges under the 1917 Espionage Act. These charges together incur a maximum 30-year prison sentence and, as happened in Chelsea Manning’s case, it is possible that a second set of charges might be added at a later date. There is no public interest or whistleblower defence allowed for charges under the Espionage Act. The US has also submitted extradition requests to numerous countries and taken action to pressure other countries from granting him asylum.

For more information on the threats facing Edward Snowden, read our Threats overview section.

Why didn’t Edward Snowden voice complaints within the US whistleblower system?

Whilst Snowden could have voiced concerns under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, he would only have been able to present complaints that the law deems of ‘urgent concern’ to Congress. The US Congress has been briefed on warrantless wiretapping before and failed to respond, as evidenced by an NSA Inspector General review of surveillance activities, which indicates 60 US Congress members had already been briefed [see page 23 of the corresponding pdf] on top secret programs such as STELLARWIND. The same document describes how, immediately following the public exposure of President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program, new orders were signed which “essentially gave NSA the same authority to collect bulk internet metadata that it had under the PSP [President’s Surveillance Program]”.

In an interview with Glenn Greenwald, Snowden explained that while he did talk to people about abuses he saw, he eventually realised that the wrongdoing he witnessed was something that should be determined by the public. Snowden later described his attempts to discuss his concerns internally in some detail in an interview with the Washington Post.

In addition, Snowden was aware of the significant risks of voicing such concerns through official channels; not only could he have been persecuted for speaking up, but the issues of concern may have continued to be hidden from public view. Thomas Drake, a former senior NSA executive, wrote in the Guardian about his own experience with the Act: “By following protocol, you get flagged – just for raising issues. You’re identified as someone they don’t like, someone not to be trusted.”

What is asylum?

Everyone has the right to seek and to be granted asylum outside of his or her country of nationality on the basis that they are unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, as stated in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What are the international laws governing asylum?

The right to asylum is governed by a large body of international human rights and refugee law treaties; for example, when the government of Ecuador granted asylum to Julian Assange it quoted a list of 16 conventions and treaties under which his right to  asylum was mandated. International customary law also includes the principles of non-refoulement and safe passage. The 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol prohibits states from returning refugees in any manner whatsoever to countries or territories in which their lives or freedom may be threatened (non-refoulment), and is binding on all states.

Why does Edward Snowden qualify for asylum?

Asylum is granted to people who are at risk of or fear persecution for their political views, or who are charged with political offences. Edward Snowden has been indicted with two charges under the Espionage Act 1917, which falls under the definition of political offences. Following his whistleblowing about secret NSA mass surveillance, the US government has retaliated in unprecedented ways: unsealing a Grand Jury indictment for Snowden prior to his detention in custody; cancelling his passport; and even causing a diplomatic incident by forcing down the presidential plane of Evo Morales on suspicion that Snowden was on it. It is clear that this level of retaliation may endanger Mr Snowden’s safety, integrity and even his life.

In August 2013 Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning was sentenced to 35 years on Espionage Act charges for passing classified information to the media. During her trial she was legally found to have suffered unlawful treatment in pre-trial detention. All these factors taken together make it clear that Edward Snowden is at risk of persecution and unfair trial in the United States.

Why did Edward Snowden request asylum from so many countries?

When Edward Snowden reached Moscow airport from Hong Kong on 23 June 2013 the US authorities announced they had revoked his US passport and he was subsequently stranded in the transit area of Sheremetyevo airport. The District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia (the court with jurisdiction over the US Department of Defense and the CIA, and where the US government brings most of its national security cases) quickly began sending pre-emptive extradition requests to a number of countries, prior to Mr Snowden being present on those countries’ territory, to block any attempt by him to travel to or through them. Julian Assange later explained why there were so many asylum requests: “We were involved in filling out asylum requests for Edward Snowden formally and informally to around 20 different nations. Some because we thought there was a decent chance, others because we wanted to show the public the refusal, to generate some public debate and awareness about how the government is behaving.”

For more detail about Snowden’s asylum requests, read the Asylum requests page.

How and why did WikiLeaks get involved?

As a publishing organisation, WikiLeaks campaigns for greater protection of journalistic sources and has taken a leading role in assisting Edward Snowden. At his request, WikiLeaks stepped in to use its legal expertise and experience to help Mr Snowden get out of Hong Kong safely. WikiLeaks also provided a legal adviser to accompany him at all times to ensure his safety and assist in making asylum requests to more than two dozen countries. Sarah Harrison stayed with Mr Snowden for four months until she was sure that he was settled and “free from the interference of any government.”

What is Edward Snowden’s current status?

Edward Snowden was granted temporary asylum by Russia on 1 August 2013 for a period of one year ending 31 July 2014, which includes the right to work and travel within the Russian Federation. In August 2014, Edward Snowden was granted a three-year residence permit, which also allows him to travel abroad for periods of up to three months. Mr Snowden is currently at an undisclosed secure location.

Find out more about Edward’s current status on the Asylum in Russia page.

What can I do to support Edward Snowden?

There’s plenty you can do! Already local and international events to support Edward Snowden and to highlight the issues his whistleblowing has raised have been organised around the world. We will post details of the latest Edward Snowden-related events here, so you can keep an eye out for events being held in your area. We will also post petitions that you can sign. If you enjoy writing, why not compose an open letter that can be shared with other supporters for a more targeted campaign?

Financial support for Edward Snowden’s legal defence is vital and making a donation to Courage (formerly the Journalistic Source Protection Defence Fund) is quick, simple and one of the most effective ways in which you can help. And see our Take action! section for Five easy actions you can do, both to support Edward Snowden and to protect your own privacy.

What can I do to protect my privacy from the mass surveillance Edward Snowden revealed?

Software developers, cryptographers and hacktivists are constantly working on methods to help people maintain their privacy online. There are methods available by which you can protect your web browsing data, email communications, instant messaging, SMS, file storage, and more. We are working on a Privacy enhancing technologies page – check back soon for more information!

What is The Courage Foundation (formerly the Journalistic Source Protection Defence Fund) and who runs it?

Courage is a trust, audited by accountants Derek Rothera & Company in the UK, for the purpose of providing legal defence and campaign aid to journalistic sources. It is overseen by an unremunerated committee of trustees. Edward Snowden is its first recipient. The terms of the fund and its trustees can be obtained from Derek Rothera & Company.

Who runs this website?

The site is commissioned by the  trustees of Courage to provide information on the threats Edward Snowden faces, how he is being protected, and what you can do to support him.