When he leaked secret information about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance efforts, Edward Snowden set in motion events that are still playing out. While he languishes as an American fugitive with uncertain status in Russia, his countrymen have been debating the constitutional limits of the government spying he exposed.
The former intelligence contractor’s actions have also inadvertently put the focus on another uncomfortable truth for Americans to consider: how much the international prestige of the United States has been tarnished over the past decade by unorthodox excesses in the fight against terrorism.
The telling moment came in a letter sent by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to his Russian counterpart, Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov. In an attempt to counter the fears that Mr. Snowden has expressed about his possible fate, Mr. Holder assured the Russian government that the fugitive would not be subject to torture or the death penalty if he were returned to the United States.
It has come to this: The U.S. government must explain itself to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where raw power is used to stifle dissent and foes of corruption find themselves imprisoned or worse.
Worse yet, the cynical leaders of Russia do not have much reason to believe U.S. assurances. They will remember that in 2007, President George W. Bush declared with a fine disregard for the truth: “This government does not torture people.”
That fiction has not survived revelations about waterboarding and renditions of terror suspects to foreign countries for torture there. On national security policy, the Obama Administration has yet to show it is much different from its predecessor.
To be sure, Mr. Holder’s letter is a promise that Mr. Snowden would be handled in the traditional U.S. judicial system with its constitutional protections — not in the nether world of CIA detention centers or Guantanamo Bay (still not closed). But having to make that implicit distinction underscores the problem.
America’s reputation for decency once preceded it. Now we have to tell leaders such as the autocratic Mr. Putin that our behavior will be above reproach — really, cross our hearts.