On April 3, the Russian newspaper by Moskovsky Komsomolets published an interview with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Responding to the reporter’s assertion that many Russians believe Moscow’s foreign policy situation is “hopeless,” particularly regarding the U.S. and Ukraine, Lavrov claimed the U.S. is trying to “punish” Russia not for its aggression in Ukraine, as the U.S. and other Western governments say, but for taking in Edward Snowden, the fugitive former Central Intelligence Agency employee and U.S. government contractor who leaked highly classified information from the U.S. National Security Agency.
“I’ve repeatedly said that as soon as Edward Snowden chose freedom – refused to fly to where he was threatened with the electric chair – the Americans immediately began trying to punish us,” Lavrov said. “Then there was the Magnitsky Act. This was all before Ukraine.”
Two of Lavrov’s points are problematic. First, the Magnitsky Act was approved in December 2012, whereas Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow on June 23, 2013. Secondly, the Magnitsky Act was lobbied by Bill Browder, at the time a British subject (Browder renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1998), and the Obama administration was reluctant to back it. Thus, the Magnitsky Act was the project of a non-U.S. citizen and approved months before the world knew the name Edward Snowden. Indeed, the two cases have nothing to do with each other.
Lavrov’s claim that Snowden chose “freedom” is also spurious. Snowden ended up at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport while allegedly in transit to Cuba from Hong Kong. According to both Snowden and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, one of the people to whom Snowden leaked NSA documents, Snowden could not continue his journey because U.S. authorities had cancelled his passport while he was in transit between Hong Kong and Russia. If true, it cannot be said that Snowden “chose” freedom in Russia.
As to Lavrov’s claim that Snowden was threatened with the “electric chair,” i.e. capital punishment, former CIA Director James Woolsey said in December 2013 that Snowden should be tried for treason and “hanged” if convicted. However, not all U.S. officials shared that view. Then, U.S Attorney General Eric Holder said that while Snowden should face penalties for the illegality of his actions, he did America a “public service” by raising a debate about domestic surveillance and privacy.
On July 23, 2013, Holder issued an official letter to Alexander Konovolov, Russia’s Minister of Justice, explaining the charges that had been filed against Snowden and the penalties they carry.
“As you know, Mr. Snowden has been charged with theft of government property (in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 641), unauthorized communication of national defense information (in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 793(d)), and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person (in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 798(a)(3)),” the letter stated.
Each of the charges carried a maximum sentence of ten years.
“First, the United States would not seek the death penalty for Mr. Snowden should he return to the United States,” the letter continued. “The charges he faces do not carry that possibility, and the United States would not seek the death penalty even if Mr. Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes.”
Polygraph.info talked to Snowden’s U.S.-based lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union, Ben Wizner, about the potential charges against Snowden. Wizner confirmed that these were the original charges, but said that even now it is not known whether there is an indictment, given that such an indictment could be sealed. He confirmed that Snowden never faced the death penalty, although he would face severe sentencing were he to return to the U.S. to face trial.
Wizner also said he was certain Snowden would face “life imprisonment” if he returned to the U.S. The maximum sentences on just the three known charges against him would add up to 30 years. According to Wizner, there is no precedent for the Snowden case, but the closest analog is that of Chelsea Manning, who was initially sentenced by a military court to 35 years in prison for a similar offense before her sentence was commuted. Snowden would also be unable to mount much of a defense, since he has essentially confessed to the existing charges. Wizner explained that the courts do not consider public interest in a case like Snowden’s.
The facts show that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is completely off-base when it comes to the reason for his country’s rapidly deteriorating relations with the U.S. and West in recent years. He not only mixed up the order of the Snowden affair and the passage of the Magnitsky Act, but did not show familiarity with the details of both circumstances. The worsening of relations and the increasingly tough measures taken by the U.S. and its allies against Russia, mostly in the form of sanctions, are due to Russia’s 2014 invasion, annexation and continued occupation of Crimea, Ukrainian territory, and what the U.S. calls “Russian-controlled” eastern Ukraine. The U.S. also imposed sanctions following Russian interference in the 2016 election as well as additional sanctions following the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia last year.