Every once in a while a story arises in the news that requires some theorising to contextualise its importance; Edward Snowden’s story is such an example.
Snowden is the (in)famous ‘whistleblower’, and former ‘technical contractor’ for both the NSA (National Security Agency) and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). Snowden, of course, gained recognition when he made the decision to publicly acknowledge the NSA’s PRISM programme that the US uses for electronic surveillance not only for monitoring abroad, but also within the US itself.
As Snowden, for the time being, remains hunkered down in a Russian terminal, much of the analysis will continue to focus on questions about what legal authority the US has to extradite or asking, “Is Snowden a villain or hero?” More recently, media outlets sought to question Snowden’s parents in hopes of gaining an understanding of his character. While these questions do indeed have relevance, the majority boil down to mere speculation. The deeper issue at play here, however, is not only the unique ‘space’ Snowden now occupies, but also the importance of the passport in international life.
The ‘space’ Snowden finds himself is a unique one, which requires some serious effort to occupy. As much of the media has reported, Snowden was working in Hawaii before flying to Hong Kong in anticipation of uncovering PRISM to the media. Following reports in both the Guardian and Washington Post Snowden attempted to elude the US sphere of influence and being charged under the Espionage Act. One of the first actions taken by the US was to revoke Snowden’s passport, eliminating his ability to travel within the traditional avenues. As a result, Snowden became a ‘self-made’ refugee.
Anyone who has travelled internationally has entered this space. Take for example the movie The Terminal, where Viktor Navorski–played by Tom Hanks—upon his arrival at JFK becomes trapped inside the airport because the US no longer accepts Navorski’s passport. In this instance, Navorski’s passport becomes invalid because his home state—Krakozia—is no longer a sovereign nation and thus US border guards no longer recognize his passport. This fictional case parallels Snowden’s dilemma.
The literature on the passport is indeed interesting and remains critical to not only understand the Snowden case, but also to help travellers understand where they go once they clear security at the airport. Air travel has changed significantly in the past decade. As Mark Salter, a Professor at the University of Ottawa, argued in Thing-power-politics: the passport as an object of global circulation “[the] passport [is] a government tool that constituted, classified and managed particular populations in relation to their political, economic, social…utility for the state”. For Salter, the passport is not simply a piece of paper issued by the government—although for many of us it will remain that—but rather it is used as a tool for both government punishment and control.
The Edward Snowden case is interesting for a host of the reasons beyond the obvious. Snowden provides a public testament not only for what can occur when a passport is revoked by a host country, but also for the privilege of having a valid passport. The US will of course continue to hunt for a route that will bring Snowden back for questioning—unless he voluntarily comes back, which is also an option. For now, Snowden, much like Navorski, will remain in passport limbo.