Political asylum is a weird idea: One country gets to tell another country: We think your criminal is actually a hero and he can come live here, so buzz off. Pretty annoying if you're the country trying to get the criminal, and the U.S. is really pissed that some countries and human rights groups are helping out NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden, currently holed up in Moscow's airport, in his quest for asylum. After all, the U.S. would never think of shielding someone accused of illegally leaking another country's classified information, right?
Ha ha, of course we would. Take the case of Swiss whistleblower Michel Christopher Meili, highlighted recently by the blog Document Exploitation. In 1997, Meili, then a 29-year-old security guard at UBS bank, pilfered documents that contained account information related to assets stolen by the Nazis in the Holocaust. The documents were slated to be destroyed, but Meili gave them to a Jewish organization instead; the revelations ultimately led to a $1.25 billion settlement between Swiss banks and Holocaust victims.
The Swiss government was not thrilled. They began investigating Meili for violating banking secrecy laws, alleging that the documents he'd taken were classified. Meili fled to the U.S. (a move known as the "Reverse Snowden"). There he was welcomed as a hero, and Congress even wrote a special law granting Meili and his family permanent residency.
About Ed Snowden, Sen. Chuck Grassley has made this case for his prosecution:
I believe that whatever the law requires, just like anybody that breaks the law, [Snowden] needs to be prosecuted... I suppose it gets down to - did he break a law? - I think it's pretty obvious he did.
But back in 1997 Grassley had this to say about Meili, whose residency bill he co-sponsored:
The situation we have here with Mr. Meili, albeit everything that he has brought to our attention has worldwide implications, but a person like him acted out of bravery, or maybe the bravery comes after he has acted because he has had to withstand the mental torture of what has gone on since then. But it reminds me of a lot of things that happen in our own Government, and I realize his is a private sector situation, but I like to think that we keep our Federal Government honest when we have people in our Government who, when something is wrong, will be willing to come forward and say what is wrong.
We speak of these people in our Government as whistleblowers. Maybe, originally, that was to denigrate them, but as far as I am concerned the word "whistleblower" is a description of somebody who wants to seek the truth, who wants to make sure that all of the facts and circumstances are known so that a wrong can be corrected.