In a media landscape where talking heads reduce individuals to sinners and saints, NSA leaker Edward Snowden is equal parts savior and heretic. But the choices the 31-year-old “hacker”, “spy”, “traitor” and “patriot” made, and their subsequent fallout, are as convoluted as the strange life he leads in the shadow of the Kremlin.
Edward Snowden is easy to like. Affable, intelligent, soft-spoken, and brimming with that very specific form of American idealism, he is a spy cut from the cloth of the millennial generation. For those who grew up on the espionage novels of John le Carre, the image of the spy in a reversible mackintosh walking with cobblestone echoes is a familiar one. Rather than code breaking Cambridge cryptographers, spies were (seemingly) distinguished men of prodigious intelligence whose craft was contingent on pure observation and a mastery of human psychology.
But Snowden, with his tech-guy flair, collared shirts, and square-rimmed glasses, is a spy for the modern age; an age where wranglers, and not debonair men of mystery, rule the espionage roost.
Yes, for someone of his age cohort, give or take a few years in either direction, he is a spook, but a spook who walks, talks and speaks in a manner that is direct and familiar. And yet, there is also something in his genial but self-possessed manner that belies a deeper shrewdness. Often characterized as a low ranking analyst who was out of his depth, in a May 2014 interview with NBC, Snowden, with an air of unwavering confidence (some would call it arrogance), made it clear that it was folly to reduce him to a mere contractor.
“I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word — in that I lived and worked undercover, overseas, pretending to work in a job that I’m not — and even being assigned a name that was not mine,” he said.
“Now, the government might deny these things. They might frame it in certain ways, and say, oh, well, you know, he’s a low-level analyst. But what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to use one position that I’ve had in a career, here or there, to distract from the totality of my experience.”
The unexplained Hong Kong flight
In that same NBC interview, Snowden admitted he had never intended on ending up in Russia, saying it came about because the United States government decided to revoke his passport and “trap” him in a Moscow airport, where he had flown to from Hong Kong with the hopes of catching a flight to Cuba (and beyond).
That story was always an odd one. When Snowden first made revelations of massive NSA spying from a boutique hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong roughly one year prior, the defense of his decision to head to the quasi-city state was almost academic in nature.
Rather than debating the strength of the island’s English common law tradition, the likelihood of his extradition, or Beijing’s human right’s record, that proponents would sidestep the logistical issue in his destination was much more telling. When Snowden hoped onto a plane in Hawaii on May 20th with four laptops which gave him access to some of the US governments most highly classified information, was there ever a doubt he would not eventually be seeking asylum somewhere? Was there ever a question of seeking asylum in China? If the answer is yes to the former and no to the latter, the choice to fly to Hong Kong simply does not gel.
If it had always been his intention to head to Latin America (though countries such as Iceland were also floated at the time,) why not just go there? After all, one of his first contacts and primary advocates was Glen Greenwald, a one-time Guardian columnist who has lived and worked out of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil for years.
Of the 21 states where WikiLeaks activist Sarah Harrison sent asylum requests to while Snowden was holed up in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for over a month, six of those states, including Brazil, were in North or South America. Ecuador was one of two states he initially sent his application to (Iceland being the other.)
Hong Kong was alway a strange choice, and muddled justifications behind it as a dentition always fell flat, prompting a whole host of accusations. At first, he was accused of working for the Chinese. And not longer after Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia on August 1, 2013, a report surfaced in the independent Russian daily Kommersant claiming that the former NSA contractor had lived in the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong for several days.
Greenwald would later claim the story was “fabricated”, while Anatoly Kucherena, an attorney who represents Snowden’s interests in the Russian Federation, also denied the reports. Kucherena, who took on Snowden’s temporary asylum case pro bono, is no stranger to Moscow’s elite and an avid supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also happens to serve on a board that oversees Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
Depending on one’s reading of the situation, it might come as no surprise that Kucherena would go on to represent former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich after he fled Ukraine in February 2014.
Snowden was always acutely aware (or at least ready to manage) claims he was working as a double agent.
Before his asylum case was settled in Russia, he assured former two-term republic Senator Gordon Humphrey that the information which had come into his possession could not be pried away under duress.
“Further, no intelligence service — not even our own — has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect. While it has not been reported in the media, one of my specializations was to teach our people at DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] how to keep such information from being compromised even in the highest threat counter-intelligence environments (i.e. China),” he wrote.
“You may rest easy knowing I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”
Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project (and whatever prejudices that might entail) , called Snowden’s immunity to torture claim “laughable.”
Foust, perhaps intentionally, was obfuscating the fact that Snowden did not necessarily mean that he could withstand Rubber-hose cryptanalysis, but rather lacked the ability to decrypt the information in his possession without the support of a third party.
Whatever the case, during a December 2014 Amnesty International event, Snowden said his security in Moscow “was great,” adding that he lived a “fairly normal life” and commuted on public transport.
Whether or not Moscow flipped Snowden is open to debate though claims that he had came from all the likely sources. Former CIA case officer and regular CNN guest Robert Baer, for example, believes Snowden might have “betrayed” his country while working as a communicator in Geneva from 2007 to 2009.
Others say that Snowden might have come into contact with Russian agents while attending a ‘security analyst and ethical hacker’ course in New Delhi in 2010.
India, after all, was once home to the largest presence of KGB operatives outside of the Soviet Union, having previously been described as “the model of KGB infiltration of a Third World (countries which were neither aligned with the West or the Soviet Union) government.” The claim, whatever the evidence, seems logical enough, right?
Putin’s unenviable ‘envy’ for Obama
That Snowden has be so widely assailed from people with deep ties to the US intelligence community should come as no surprise. Such speculation is interesting as an intellectual exercise, but is far more the product of deductive reasoning than any sort of fact finding mission. Anonymous sources and unsympathetic former US spooks are not in and of themselves enough to label Snowden as a traitor.
From a logical standpoint, that Snowden would be given shelter on Russian soil on anything other than a pro-bono basis seems highly unlikely. But what Russia would consider proper renumeration is anyone’s guess. After all, just the presence of Snowden in Russia is a big enough thumb in Obama’s eye to make make Putin crack a smile (and a knowing wink).
When asked how he felt about the Snowden revelations during his annual Q&A session in December 2013, Putin said he was jealous of Obama because “he can get away with it,” in reference to the NSA spying program.
The statement is patently absurd, of course, given that Russia actually has its own system to intercept telephone, internet, and other forms of communication media called System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM).
Following the initial Snowden revelations, Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and author of several books on Russian intelligence, told the now defunct Moscow News that “The Russian system is even more advanced [than the American one].”
In the run up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, Ron Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto and director of Citizen Lab, similarly told the Guardian that SORM was like the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program “on steroids.”
“The scope and scale of Russian surveillance are similar to the disclosures about the US program but there are subtle differences to the regulations,” Deibert told the daily. “We know from Snowden’s disclosures that many of the checks were weak or sidestepped in the US, but in the Russian system permanent access for SORM is a requirement of building the infrastructure.”
So in a country which gives security services cart blanche to monitor domestic internet and telephone communications with zero governmental oversight and a compliant state media, for Putin to say Obama is getting away with anything is beyond disingenuous.
In the United States, for example, US citizens have potentially seen their data swept up in bulk collection efforts due to a loophole in Section 702 the of FISA Amendments Act of 2008: “Procedures For Targeting Certain Persons Outside The United States Other Than United States Persons.”
Snowden said as much in a surreal, revelatory, at times juvenile and yet hard hitting interview with comedian John Oliver in Moscow earlier this month.
That a US citizen’s email or, in the case of Oliver, “dick pic”, could get caught up in a bulk collection effort is troublesome. But it pales in comparison to Russia, where eight government agencies can tap into analogous internet surveillance programs directly targeting its own citizenry with virtual impunity.
What’s more, Russia regularly employees its security services to spy on opposition figures, often capturing them in compromising situations which they themselves have orchestrated.
In 2010, for example, video footage allegedly showing three opposition figures having sex and/or doing cocaine with an amateur model known as ‘Moo-Moo’ was released in a calculated and coordinated fashion.
‘Moo-Moo’, otherwise known as Ekaterina Gerasimova, is believed to have slept with six politicians or journalists unsympathetic to the power vertical, including one time Newsweek editor Mikhail Fishman, who could allegedly be seen snorting cocaine while Gerasimov was seen walking naked behind him in leaked footage.
Viktor Shenderovich, a journalist and the script writer whose reputation and marriage took a serious blow as a result of another sex tape with Gerasimova, claimed “federal authorities” were behind the leak. Alexander Potkin, onetime leader of the far-right Movement Against Illegal Immigrants said it was proof that citizens had no “guarantee” of their private lives being protected.
And yet when Snowden asked Putin whether Russia surveilled its citizens in masse during an annual call in show in April 2014, Putin answered that Russian intelligence services were under the tight reign of “the state and society,” adding that they neither had the money nor the technical knowhow available in the US.
The US Embassy in Moscow would later tweet that Snowden would likely be interested to know that Russian law allows for the “control, storage and study of all data in the communication networks of the Russian Federation.”
For anyone familiar with the Russian propaganda strategy of whataboutism, that Moscow could gain a sense of moral superiority on account of Snowden’s revelations, despite the fact that Russia’s leadership condones far more intrusive surveillance against it’s own citizenry, is a coup de theatre of epic proportions. Everything after all, is PR.
‘He’s clearly being exploited’
And how does Snowden feel about all of this? Well, if he is aware of it at all, his made for television question for Putin regarding mass surveillance will arguably be his first and last foray into Russian political matters (at least for domestic consumption) which doesn’t occur across a kitchen table. On the plus side, it also appears he won’t be forced to become a shill for the regime.
In an interview with Michael Weiss published in the Daily Beast on Monday, Soldatov said that Snowden has likely been relegated to only discussing NSA-related issues with American journalists as a condition of his temporary asylum. But Snowden’s apparent refusal to deal with Russian outlets, even state media ready to heap accolades on him, shows that he has likely struck some sort of a deal with Moscow, whereby he’ll never “be used by Russian propaganda.”
That does not mean, however, that he’s not being “used” for propaganda purposes.
“He’s clearly being exploited—after all, many repressive measures on the Internet in Russia were presented to Russians as a response to Snowden’s revelations,” Soldatov said.
“For instance, the legislation to relocate the servers of global platforms to Russia by September of this year, to make them available for the Russian secret services, was presented as a measure to assure the security of Russian citizens’ personal data.”
Soldatov says that Snowden’s insistence that he’s secure in Moscow belies the fact that he lives such a secretive life in Russia. This reality is further complicated by the fact that he did ask Putin, and only Putin, a veritably stage-managed question about surveillance within the Russian Federation.
“There is some problem with logic here,” Soldatov said. “For instance, I would understand if he says, ‘Look, I cannot comment on Russian surveillance, this is not my war.’ Instead, he asked his question about Russian surveillance. And he is not transparent. I just don’t get it.”
The way we…and Snowden get by
Of course, those allowing for slightly more nuance, who neither need to crucify nor canonize the former NSA contractor, could easily see a solution to this conundrum. People redraw lines every day of their lives in order to survive. If one does not take a one drop of venom poisons the well logic, Snowden’s everyday existence in Moscow could be a see how far I can bend without breaking philosophy, with the Russian government equally testing their limits. After all, just because one side in this equation is infinitely more powerful than the other fails to account for one simple reality: Snowden’s mere existence in Moscow is better for both sides, even if a secret or word were never to be shared.
A year after his revelations, Snowden said if he ended up in chains at Guantanamo, he’d be okay with that. But there is no denying his flight to Moscow, and the propaganda value he provided to a quantifiably more repressive government than his own, tarnished his crusade.
Snowden need not have ended up in chains on strictly moral grounds, that is true. Daniel Ellsberg, who was charged in 1971 under the Espionage Act as well as for theft and conspiracy for copying the Pentagon Papers, himself said that comparing Snowden to him for leaving the country and seeking asylum rather than facing trial were being unfair.
“The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago,” he said.
Broadly speaking, Ellsberg is right, but contextually speaking, he is wrong.
If Snowden had made it to Iceland or even Ecuador, his position would be more or less unassailable. But if his decision to go to Hong Kong was a fluke, and his subsequent stranding in Moscow unfortunate, it’s ultimately on his head.
Ironically, between dick pic jokes, no one put Snowden on the ropes harder than John Oliver did.
Snowden made a decision to outsource the vetting of classified materials to journalists. The New York Times would subsequently fail to properly blur out the name of a NSA employee on a slide the paper published, which just so happened to outline the very legitimate surveillance target of Al-Qaeda in Mosul, Iraq.
Snowden himself admitted that there had been “f*** ups “in the way some of the information was handled. But his admission was followed up by a justification that in journalism, “we have to accept that some mistakes will be made. This is a fundamental concept of liberty.”
Oliver was not so forgiving.
“You’re giving documents with information that you know could be harmful which could get out there … We’re not even talking about bad faith, we’re talking about incompetence.”
Taking ownership of your f***ups
The simple fact is, Snowden is at the top of the NSA leak chain of command, and is thus ultimately responsible for how it all plays out. Likewise, ending up in Moscow is also his f*** up, that is, unless he was actually a double agent, which, given the means by which he choose to release the information, he likely wasn’t. But if he is a patriot, he must also accept that any boost he’s provided to a hostile foreign government for the sake of confronting his own government’s misdeeds is on his shoulders. None of that undoes the good that Snowden’s done via the NSA leaks (though judging by the general insouciance of the US public, that good might be needlessly low.)
This reading of the situation is unlikely to satisfy his detractors in the US intelligence community who are still working out a portmanteau for traitor and defector. Nor will it find quarter among the likes of Glen Greenwald or Oliver Stone, who have a laser-like focus when it comes to what is good and what is bad in the world. That Snowden could be good and bad, that he could have tried to help his country in some ways and betrayed it in others, that he could have been selfless enough to speak out and give up his life in paradise but then selfish enough to give succor to Putin’s regime after his own missteps found him stranded in Moscow, and not Quito, is a position that few are willing to take.
Snowden has walked with far more silent footsteps through the streets of Moscow than Western spooks pounding out those cobblestone echoes during the height of the Cold War. And yet the trajectory of his flight and the velocity of his landing continue to reverberate throughout the world. Any normative valuation of his final impact is difficult to suss out, though it is unlikely to be an either/or proposition. But for those looking to beatify or damn the “hacker”, “spy”, “traitor” and “patriot, the lines have clearly been drawn in the sand.