BUENOS AIRES - Washington’s blatent public pressure to keep Edward Snowden from obtaining political asylum has fed a new wave of anti-Americanism worldwide. It also represents a test for the United States’ bilateral relations with several countries, including Russia and those in its own “backyard.”
What explains the willingness of Barack Obama’s government to pay whatever the diplomatic cost of this scandal?
Snowden has jeopardized the United States’ powerful, electronic espionage system. As a result, the US considers it imperative to make an example out of him so that other young people do not think they can do the same without consequences. Furthermore, it's crucial for Obama to show on the domestic front that the United States’ sphere of influence has not diminished during his Presidency. The bet is that the diplomatic cost will be less than currently predicted.
“The problem is that Snowden, like Bradley Manning (the soldier accused of passing confidential files to WikiLeaks) has put in evidence how vulnerable the US espionage system really is,” one Latin American intelligence agent told Clarín.
This agent, who works regularly with the CIA, explains that Washington is less concerned about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, because he was not part of the system, and simply received and circulated the information. "The other two were part of system," said the agent. "Now they fear that if they do not manage to catch Snowden others will follow in his footsteps. They would rather be accused of imperialism than have this event repeat itself.”
Intelligence counterparts all knew that the United States had a system of electronic espionage. They’ve known ever since Echelon, a system of global communications interception, was established by the US, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and New Zealand to gather information on the USSR during the Cold War. Few, however, imagined its magnitude.
“They need thousands of people just to be able to process and translate such a vast amount of information," noted the intel source. "Many are contracted out and are not from within the system, which represents a great challenge to the system’s security. Thus, the message is that anyone who follows Snowden’s footsteps will have a really hard time for the rest of their life.”
Air space issues
The diversion of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane proves the level of pressure the United States is exerting to prevent Snowden’s escape. Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have offered him asylum, but will Russia allow him to leave its territory? Will a plane -- with him on board -- have the authorization to transit the necessary national air spaces to arrive at its final destination?
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Los Roques beach, Venezuela - Photo: DamianFinol
“Obama will do the impossible to prevent Snowden from drinking a Coke on a Venezuelan beach, even if that means backtracking on the US rapprochement with Venezuela,” Marc Jones from the University of Texas told Clarín. “Obama has to show his influence and come off as a strong leader in the face of this kind of crisis. The Republicans have already accused him of being weak.”
The anti-espionage rhetoric has been strong in both Europe and Latin America. Still, commercial relations between the European Union and the US were not suspended and Angela Merkel said that the collaboration of the systems of intelligence is key.
The Latin American countries are divided between those who want to maintain strong relations with the US, including Brazil, and those who do not care about putting it at risk, like Venezuela. Nobody really knows how far they are willing to go in either case.