Ron Paul seems to think it could happen. As the former Congressman from Texas recently told Fox News, "I'm worried [that] somebody in our government might kill him with a cruise missile or a drone missile."
Is that even possible? Paul's slight ambiguity aside--he laughs softly throughout the clip--is the specter of extrajudicial killing now just another thing to keep Snowden up at night? Given the US government's unsettling, if still nebulous criteria for assassinating its own citizens on foreign soil, it's certainly possible. Paul could have a point. And it's not like Snowden isn't expecting the hammer to drop in one way or another, and soon.
Asked by Scientific American about how he thinks the NSA will go after Snowden, who in a series of articles last week pulled the cover off what's a massive and all-seeing digital dragnet that can literally watch thoughts form, former NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake did not mince words: "With everything they've got."
What "everything they've got" will look like remains to be seen. And yet if closed-door discussions to build the case for droning Snowden are actually going down--hell, even if they aren't, or at least not yet--we can try to imagine how the US government is going about it by referring back to a curt White House factsheet (.pdf) that spells out something like America's "criteria" for snuffing out perceived bad guys. Here's what the Obama administration's "can we drone Snowden?" checklist
would should look like.
IS THERE A LEGAL BASIS FOR THIS?
Presumably yes, there is. The only problem is we have absolutely no idea how that foundation was set, or if it's shifting.
Remember Anwar Al-Awlaki? The American-born Al-Qaeda cleric was killed by a US drone strike in Yemen in 2011. (Two weeks later, his 16-year-old son, likewise a US citizen, suffered the same fate as his father.) The US insists, however begrudgingly, that the rationale behind the strike that took out Al-Awlaki does in fact exist, yet refuses to declassify the full legal memo. Droning Snowden wouldn't necessarily be without precedent, but how are we supposed to know that doing so would be in accord with a justification that's being kept behind the curtain?
Oh right, we can't.
DOES SNOWDEN POSE AN IMMINENT THREAT TO AMERICANS?
Not just "imminent," whatever that means. If the former government-contracted intel whiz poses a direct threat to the well-being of US citizens, is that threat also "ongoing"?
Folks are already painting Snowden as such, from labelling him a "traitor" to calling for the death penalty. But it's extremely difficult to argue that Snowden is, in other words, a terrorist or enemy combatant. He says he strategically only divulged information that serves the public good--that stimulates healthy debate and discussion over privacy and snooping and democracy writ large--not anything that would potentially put Americans in the crosshairs of terrorists. The only thing Snowden's leaks may be seriously threatening, if they haven't already threatened, is many folks' faith in electoral politics.
ARE WE NEAR CERTAIN SNOWDEN IS PRESENT?
As of Monday, you could say there was certainty that Snowden was "present" insofar as we knew the 29-year-old was holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong. (Nevermind the fact that raining Hellfire missiles on a building in a populous Chinese city would almost certainly see innocent bystanders incinerated or maimed. More on this below.)
But Snowden has since gone on the lam, whereabouts unknown. There's no telling where the guy is headed, though we have some ideas. Until the guy is definitely pinpointed somewhere, he is "present" nowhere.
ARE WE NEAR CERTAIN THERE WILL BE NO COLLATERAL DAMAGE?
Unless the Feds pinpoint Snowden in some craggy and desolate tract of land, which seems unlikey (hiding in plain sight seems to be his MO), it'll presumable be damn near impossible to avoid injuring or killing innocent civilians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. And even if he's located in some craggy and desolate tract of land, where no innocent people would run the risk of being blown apart, that none of America's hypothetical "let's drone Snowden" deliberations meet its own criteria would prevent it from happening in the first plac.
IS CAPTURE OUT OF THE QUESTION?
It isn't. But let's back up: If you're an American abroad accused of actively plotting direct violence against your people (and especially if you're anything other than white), the US government will find and kill you, straight up. If you're an American abroad accused of exposing the potential wrongdoings of your government, the Feds won't kill you. They'll just lock you up.
Indeed, it seems the US government, now more than ever, would rather capture a whistleblower like Snowden before tossing him into some sort of indefinite detention, instead of killing him outright. Like collateral damage, if the US went forward in giving the NSA leaker the drone treatment, "It's too hard to capture his ass" simply won't hold water.
HAVE ALL OTHER OPTIONS BEEN EXHAUSTED?
No--at least not yet, they haven't. That's probably because it's far too early in this batshit crazy saga.
So no, Snowden will not be droned. Or rather, he cannot be droned, at least when held up to the US's own criteria for killing its own citizens overseas. But when has non-compliance to its own (non-)laws ever stopped the US government and its closest allies from doing whatever the fuck they please?
[America's intelligence regime] will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information.
Not to drone on, but Snowden unfortunately has far more plausible risks to worry about than death from above.