Edward Snowden, the former CIA and Booz Allen computer security technician who says he leaked information about National Security Agency surveillance programs, has told The Guardian that he wants "to seek asylum in a country with shared values."
"The nation that most encompasses this is Iceland," he added, during an interview in Hong Kong, to which he has fled. "They stood up for people over Internet freedom."
Snowden's comment about "Internet freedom" is almost surely a reference to the help Iceland has given to WikiLeaks — the destination of choice for leakers such as U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning. That's an organization that knows firsthand about seeking asylum. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been living at the Ecuadorian embassy in London for a year as he seeks to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he's wanted for questioning in a case involving alleged sexual assaults.
Iceland's most recent move that lent support to WikiLeaks was an April Supreme Court decision that "ordered Valitor hf, the Icelandic partner of MasterCard Inc. and Visa Inc., to process card payments for [the] anti-secrecy website ... within 15 days or face daily penalties," Bloomberg News says. So, as other nations have tried to put roadblocks in WikiLeaks' way by cutting off its access to funds, Iceland has gone the opposite direction.
In February, Digital Journal reported, Iceland's interior minister ordered the deportation of FBI agents who had come to the nation — without notice — to question a WikiLeaks associate. And Digital Journal added that:
"Iceland has been a safe haven for WikiLeaks activity. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks the Nordic island nation of 320,000 as the world's 2nd most democratic, after Norway, and Icelanders pride themselves on their reputation for free speech. Wikileaks worked with Icelandic lawmakers to draft the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), a 'parliamentary resolution ... tasking the government with implementing various protections' to create a safe haven for journalists and to guarantee free speech in the digital age. The IMMI was passed by a vote of 50-0 in June 2010."
The IMMI released a statement Sunday saying it would try to assist Snowden. Calling him a "brave whistleblower who exposed these clandestine projects for monitoring the world's population," the organization said:
"We feel it is our duty to offer to assist and advise Mr. Snowden to the greatest of our ability. We are currently attempting to get in touch with Mr. Snowden to confirm that this is his will and discuss the details of his asylum request. Our next step will be to assess the security implications of asylum, as it is possible that Iceland may not be the best location, depending on various questions regarding the legal framework — all of these issues will be taken into account. We are already working on detailing the legal protocols required to apply for asylum, and will over the course of the week be seeking a meeting with the newly appointed interior minister of Iceland, Mrs. Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, to discuss whether an asylum request can be processed in a swift manner, should such an application be made."
Whether Snowden would be able to get to Iceland (or other possibly asylum sites such as Ecuador or Venezuela), is very uncertain, though. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reported on Morning Edition, there is an extradition treaty between Hong Kong and the U.S.
China's central government might intervene to say he can't be sent elsewhere, but barring such action a request from the U.S. could mean he'd be sent back to face prosecution.
Authorities in Hong Kong also may not allow Snowden to get to a place where he could apply for asylum in Iceland. Kristín Árnadóttir, the Icelandic ambassador in Beijing, has reportedly said in an email to the South China Morning Post that Snowden would need to be in Iceland to make such an request.
But, Iceland has intervened before to convince a third country to let it give safe haven to someone wanted in the U.S. — without first requiring that the asylum-seeker get to its territory.
In 2004 and 2005, former chess champion Bobby Fischer spent nine months in a Japanese prison. He was held there for trying to leave the country without a valid passport. Meanwhile, the U.S. wanted to take Fischer into custody because he had once played in a chess match in Yugoslavia — allegedly violating U.N. sanctions then in place against that country.
Iceland gave Fischer citizenship. Japan decided that was where he should go. Fischer died in Iceland in 2008.
Watch for more about Snowden, extradition law and the rules of asylum on the Parallels blog.