The Council of Europe, the self-proclaimed “democratic conscience of Greater Europe,” urged the United States on Tuesday to allow NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to return home and make the case that his actions had positive effects.
The call for Snowden to be allowed a “public interest defense” — something not available to whistleblowers charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, as Snowden has been — was part of a resolution to improve international protections for whistleblowers passed overwhelmingly by the 47-nation council’s parliamentary assembly at its meeting in Strasbourg, France.
After the vote, Snowden spoke to the assembly by video from Moscow, where he has temporary asylum. “It would be committing a crime by discussing your defense,” Snowden said of his current legal prospects if he returned to the U.S.
“I think it’s incredibly strong,” he said of the council’s resolution. “It’s a major step forward. … If you can’t mount a full and effective defense — make the case that you are revealing information in the public interest — you can’t have a fair trial.”
U.S. government officials have repeatedly said that Snowden should return home to face the consequences of his actions. Snowden should “come back, be sent back, and he should have his day in court,” said National Security Advisor Susan Rice on “60 Minutes” in December 2013.
But as Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and others have pointed out, the administration has previously argued that disclosing details of Espionage Act cases further risks national security, so the defendant can’t explain why he did what he did. Military whistleblower Chelsea Manning faced the same conundrum during the summer of 2013. Her entire defense was ruled inadmissible until sentencing. Manning is serving 35 years in prison.
The United States Consul General in Strasbourg, tasked with observing the council’s meetings, did not respond to request for comment on the new resolution.
The council is a forum for representatives of the member governments to meet, discuss and promote important human rights issues. It doesn’t carry any formal or legal weight, but has acted as a leader on human rights issues in Europe since it was founded in 1949.
The council’s resolution Tuesday also broadly recommends that the entire European Union offer asylum to whistleblowers “threatened by retaliation in their home countries,” given that their disclosure meets the assembly’s protection standards.
It was based on a report written by Pieter Omtzigt, a member of the House of Representatives in the Netherlands.
The resolution also specifically requests increased whistleblower protections for employees in both the public and private sector who work in national security or intelligence-related fields.