Germany's Quandary The Debate over Asylum for Snowden
Part 2: Secret Meeting in Moscow
It is Thursday afternoon, and the man who is dividing public opinion in Germany is sitting in a room where the walls are covered with pictures in gold-colored frames. To ensure that the location of the meeting remains a secret, he has had Ströbele and his entourage picked up in a car with darkened windows. There are bodyguards outside the door for his protection. Snowden is wearing a light-blue shirt with the top two buttons open, along with a black suit. He has a three-day beard. He greets his visitors at the door and invites them to sit down at a table with cheese, fruit and fish, along with white wine, red wine and vodka. No one has any alcohol, and the conversation begins.
Since Russia offered him temporary asylum, Snowden has been living in a so-called safe house in Moscow. Not even his closest associates know the exact location of the building, where Russian security forces provide him with 24-hour protection. He can do as he pleases, and he can leave the building, but never alone and never without bodyguards. "The Russians seem concerned that the Americans wouldn't even shy away from trying to apprehend him in downtown Moscow," says someone who has been in touch with the confidants of the whistleblower for months.
After he had seemingly disappeared for weeks, current pictures of Snowden surfaced for the first time in October. They showed him with a shopping cart in front of a Russian supermarket, as well as with a group of other American whistleblowers who presented him with an award at a banquet. The 30-year-old looked relaxed.
All appearances aside, his new life represents a huge adjustment. In April, he was still living with his girlfriend, a dancer, in a wooden house in Hawaii. Now he lives in the enormous city of Moscow, with the knowledge that his temporary asylum is limited to one year. The question of what happens after that worries him and is a constant subject of conversation with his confidants.
A Buddhist and a Teetotaler
Snowden is a practicing Buddhist. He is said to be a vegetarian, doesn't drink alcohol or coffee, reads books about Russian history and spends endless hours in front of the computer, his link to the outside world. He is apparently in close contact with the journalists to whom he entrusted some of his material.
Through his computer, Snowden also keeps track of the debate he has unleashed worldwide. In his first extensive interview, which he gave to the British Guardian newspaper this summer, he said that his biggest fear was that his revelations would have no effect and would come to nothing. That fear, as it turns out, seems to have been unfounded.
So far, Snowden has turned down interviews and offers of book contracts. His reasoning has consistently been the same: that he doesn't want to put himself in the spotlight of media reports. Instead, he says, he is more interested in the material he spent months gathering and then spirited out of the inner sanctum of the American intelligence system.
People who have had discussions with him say that Snowden, in his Russian exile, has not developed any animosity whatsoever to his former home. On the contrary, he apparently still sees himself as an American patriot, believes in his country's ability to heal itself, and is even convinced that he will be able to return home one day.
Snowden's Russian guards prohibit him from receiving visitors in the safe house. Anyone who wants to see him has to enter into lengthy negotiations, as Ströbele did. The procedure is always the same: Guests are driven to a secret rendezvous point, where Snowden meets with them. The same protocol applied to his father, who went to Moscow in early October, that applied to Ströbele's delegation last week.
Ströbele, a lawyer who once represented members of the West German militant group Red Army Faction, had already given up hope of meeting Snowden in person. Ströbele managed to contact him through a middleman at the beginning of the NSA scandal, when the former NSA contractor was stranded in the transit area of a Moscow airport. But the contact was lost when Snowden moved to his current location.
Ströbele managed to reestablish the connection after SPIEGEL reported on the surveillance of Merkel's cellphone in its last issue. Ströbele said afterward that Snowden seemed alert and sensible during the three-hour conversation. Also sitting at the table was a young, blonde woman who had recently appeared next to Snowden in almost all photos, and who has been one of his closest companions in recent months. Her name is Sarah Harrison, and she has experience with men the United States views as public enemies. In recent years, she was one of the closest advisers of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.
Harrison met Assange when she was working at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism of the City University in London. Before long, she was working full-time for Assange and WikiLeaks. Harrison happened to be in Australia when Snowden decided to leave Hong Kong, where he had first sought refuge. She flew to Hong Kong and has remained with him since then.
'Would You Be Willing to Help Us?'
Ströbele explained to Snowden the possibility of safe passage, should Snowden be prepared to testify before the planned parliamentary committee. He told Snowden that, as a valuable witness, he could elucidate the complex spying activities of US intelligence agencies. "All of this is completely foreign to us. Would you be willing to help us?" he asked.
Snowden left no doubt that he would do so, but only at a price that the German government has so far been unwilling to pay: the right of residence in Germany. Snowden alluded to this condition in a letter he gave Ströbele in the meeting: "I hope that when the difficulties of this humanitarian situation have been resolved," Snowden wrote, "I will be able to cooperate in the responsible finding of fact regarding reports in the media, particularly in regard to the truth and authenticity of documents, as appropriate and in accordance with the law."
Ströbele put it somewhat more clearly in a press conference on Friday in Berlin, where he said that Snowden had "significant reservations" about being questioned as a witness in Moscow by an official representing the Bundestag or a federal prosecutor. However, Ströbele added, "he could imagine coming to Germany if it can be assured that he will subsequently be allowed to remain in Germany or a comparable country, and will be safe there." The offer had been made, Ströbele added, and now it was up to the federal government to act accordingly.
From a legal standpoint, bringing Snowden to Germany does not pose a significant problem. The fact that he does not have a valid passport would not stand in the way of his departure, nor would it prevent the Russians from allowing him to board a flight to Germany. Upon his arrival at a German airport, he could apply for asylum.