The Defection of Edward Snowden

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished at, July 26, 2013.

There are no two ways about it: Edward Snowden is defecting to Russia

Beyond a doubt,” a par­tial­ly redact­ed, high­ly clas­si­fied gov­ern­ment report from 1963 says, “no oth­er event has had, or is like­ly to have in the future, a greater impact on the Agency’s secu­ri­ty pro­gram.” The event to which this report refers is one of the ear­li­est known expo­sures of the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency’s for­eign sur­veil­lance pro­grams.

In 1960, NSA ana­lysts William Mar­tin and Bernon Mitchell announced at a press con­fer­ence in Moscow that they were “dis­gust­ed” by America’s grow­ing sur­veil­lance of for­eign com­mu­ni­ca­tions, includ­ing of its allies. They told a rapt group of reporters that they had come to the USSR because they felt it shared their val­ues more than the U.S., in the process renounc­ing their Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship and accept­ing the Sovi­et Union as their new home. It was one of the high­est pro­file defec­tions in Cold War his­to­ry, sparked by anger over Amer­i­can sur­veil­lance activ­i­ty and result­ing in enor­mous embar­rass­ment for the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty.

There remain many ques­tions about the Mar­tin and Mitchell defec­tion (includ­ing the false alle­ga­tion that they were gay). But the sim­i­lar­i­ty between their flight from Amer­i­ca in 1960 and Edward Snowden’s flight from being brought to jus­tice in 2013 is remark­able.

In June, when the Guardian first began pub­lish­ing leaked top secret doc­u­ments pil­fered from the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency, it looked like a tra­di­tion­al act of whistle­blow­ing: Shock­ing rev­e­la­tions of mass sur­veil­lance of the Amer­i­can peo­ple, leaked anony­mous­ly to a news­pa­per in an effort to expose wrong­do­ing and prompt con­struc­tive change. But after weeks of curi­ous deci­sions, poor judg­ment, and bizarre claims, it became some­thing else: an aston­ish­ing­ly pub­lic defec­tion, played out in real time.

How Snowden made himself the story

This is per­haps the first time in recent mem­o­ry that a leak­er chose to make him­self a part of the sto­ry from the start; nor­mal­ly they are exposed when the gov­ern­ment iden­ti­fies them as the sub­ject of an inves­ti­ga­tion. With­in days of pub­lish­ing the first doc­u­ments, the Guardian post­ed a video of Edward Snow­den to its web­site. Gone was the assump­tion that anonymi­ty was a strong cov­er for leak­ing high­ly clas­si­fied doc­u­ments; in its place was a pre­emp­tive attempt to con­trol the nar­ra­tive about the leak­er. Snowden’s video con­tained anoth­er sur­prise: He had fled to Chi­na. Hong Kong isn’treal­ly Chi­na, peo­ple argued — but it is.

Why would a whistle­blow­er, sup­pos­ed­ly con­cerned with the infringe­ment of civ­il lib­er­ties in Amer­i­ca, trav­el to a city where Bei­jing was sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly strip­ping those same rights away from its peo­ple, sub­ject­ing them to an increas­ing­ly vast sur­veil­lance gov­ern­ment? Snowden’s deci­sion to flee to some­where, any­where, from his home in Hawaii had a cer­tain log­ic. Since tak­ing office, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has inten­si­fied and expand­ed the government’s inves­ti­ga­tion and pros­e­cu­tion of those who leaked nation­al secu­ri­ty infor­ma­tion. The inex­cus­able treat­ment of Bradley Man­ning in prison sug­gest­ed to many that Snow­den could nev­er hope for humane treat­ment or a fair tri­al.

Yet for a self-declared whistle­blow­er, con­cerned with sur­veil­lance and cur­tailed civ­il lib­er­ties, the deci­sion to flee arrest and tri­al mat­ters at least as much as where one choos­es to flee. For starters, Hong Kong has an extra­di­tion treaty with the U.S., so hid­ing there would not nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­tect him. More­over, run­ning away to Chi­na while com­plain­ing about a sur­veil­lance state (“I don’t want to live in a soci­ety that does these sorts of things,” Snow­den told Glenn Green­wald and Lau­ra Poitras in the Guardian film) sug­gests that he has ques­tion­able judg­ment.

While in Hong Kong, Snow­den leaked detailed plans for America’s future cyber­war­fare oper­a­tions against Chi­na. They did not involve the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment abus­ing the rights of its cit­i­zens; rather, the doc­u­ments showed that the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment was tak­ing its oblig­a­tion to pro­tect Amer­i­can inter­ests, even online, seri­ous­ly. His con­fi­dant, Glenn Green­wald, told aDai­ly­Beast reporter, “What moti­vat­ed that leak though was a need to ingra­ti­ate him­self to the peo­ple of Hong Kong and Chi­na.”

Snowden’s sup­port­ers defend even that deci­sion; after all, how else would he make him­self appear valu­able to the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and make it like­ly they’d grant him asy­lum from U.S. pros­e­cu­tion? Such a deci­sion con­tains with­in it an implic­it threat of more dis­clo­sures to Bei­jing. Green­wald has said, repeat­ed­ly, that Snow­den has thou­sands of sen­si­tive doc­u­ments, which are clear lever­age should he need to bar­gain with a reluc­tant gov­ern­ment. What­ev­er his oth­er beliefs, the implic­it trade of doc­u­ments-for-refuge was built into his Hong Kong gam­bit.

Snowden’s Flight Follows a Familiar Script

As pres­sure from the U.S. grew, it was clear that Snow­den could not stay in Hong Kong. A Russ­ian gov­ern­ment offi­cial said they would con­sid­er an asy­lum appli­ca­tion. But Michael Rat­ner, a lawyer who also rep­re­sents Wik­iLeaks founder Julian Assange and had begun rep­re­sent­ing Snow­den, told reporters that Snow­den was con­sid­er­ing trav­el­ing to Cuba.

Ratner’s sug­ges­tion raised many eye­brows in the U.S. In 1968, a CIA ana­lyst named Philip Agee quit the agency in protest of the Tlatelol­co mas­sacre in Mex­i­co City, where he was sta­tioned, after police offi­cers shot into a crowdof unarmed stu­dents, killing dozens. The CIA was oper­at­ing an infor­mant net­work there named LITEMPO, which turned out to have helped insu­latethe Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment from respon­si­bil­i­ty for the mas­sacre, accord­ing to declas­si­fied files. After his res­ig­na­tion, Agee announced his inten­tion to expose the iden­ti­ties of under­cov­er agents around the world.

An avowed social­ist, Agee felt that the CIA was tram­pling on the rights of work­ers and thought that expos­ing so many agents would halt their activ­i­ties. In 1975, Agee pub­lished Inside the Com­pa­ny: CIA Diary, which named active CIA agents and the oper­a­tions they were car­ry­ing out in sup­port of anti-com­mu­nist gov­ern­ments across Latin Amer­i­ca. After being deport­ed from Lon­don in 1976 at the request of Hen­ry Kissinger, he trav­eled the world in legal lim­bo because the U.S. gov­ern­ment had revoked his pass­port.

By 1981, the Supreme Court ruled in Haig v. Agee that the Sec­re­tary of State could revoke the pass­port of a per­son who is deter­mined to be “caus­ing or are like­ly to cause seri­ous dam­age to the nation­al secu­ri­ty or the for­eign pol­i­cy of the Unit­ed States.” Agee even­tu­al­ly received asy­lum in Cuba, where he died in 2008. He claimed he was a whistle­blow­er and was unjust­ly per­se­cut­ed for exer­cis­ing his right to free speech. Yet Oleg Kalu­g­in, in his 1995 book Spy­mas­ter: The High­est-Rank­ing KGB Offi­cer Ever to Break His Silence, claims that Agee had first approached the KGB in Mex­i­co City long before he chose to speak out. The KGB reject­ed his offer of “a trea­sure trove of infor­ma­tion.” After he set­tled in Cuba, Kalu­g­in writes, “I sat in my office in Moscow read­ing reports about the grow­ing rev­e­la­tions com­ing from Agee, [and] I cursed our offi­cers for turn­ing away such a prize.”

The par­al­lels between Snow­den and Agee are inesc­pable. In short order, the U.S. revoked Snowden’s pass­port in a bid to pre­vent his fur­ther trav­el­ing. Snow­den, how­ev­er, booked a flight to Moscow on June 23, and has been stuck in the tran­sit area of Shereme­tye­vo Inter­na­tion­al Air­port ever since. With such a high pro­file and no pass­port to allow easy pas­sage through cus­toms, it was inevitable he would be stopped in Moscow.

The guy is sup­pos­ed­ly car­ry­ing four lap­tops, plus a bunch of thumb dri­ves, sup­pos­ed­ly knows all sorts of oth­er things,” Matthew Rojan­sky, the deputy direc­tor of the Rus­sia and Eura­sia Pro­gram at the Carnegie Endow­ment for Inter­na­tion­al Peace in Wash­ing­ton, told the New York Times. “You don’t pass up an oppor­tu­ni­ty like that. You don’t just let him pass through the busi­ness lounge, on the way to Cuba.”

Rus­sia is a state that is arguably even less mind­ful of its cit­i­zens’ rights than Chi­na; human rights groups are unan­i­mous in their crit­i­cism of the coun­try, for its per­se­cu­tion of civ­il rights activists, its harsh crack­down on pro­test­ers, its grow­ing harass­ment of gays and les­bians, and years of unchecked mur­der of jour­nal­ists. It is a strange place to seek refuge when one’s com­plaint is that Amer­i­ca is a creep­ing police state.

Ques­tions about Snowden’s judg­ment in flee­ing to Chi­na were only com­pound­ed by his deci­sion to trav­el to Rus­sia. Rather than “pet­ting a phoenix” in a palace in Bei­jing, as he appar­ent­ly hoped, he remains stuck in a legal no-man’s‑land, much as Philip Agee was more than thir­ty years ago.

At a packed press con­fer­ence help­ful­ly orga­nized by Shereme­tye­vo air­port offi­cials, Snow­den released a state­ment through Wik­iLeaks:

Yet even in the face of this his­tor­i­cal­ly dis­pro­por­tion­ate aggres­sion, coun­tries around the world have offered sup­port and asy­lum. These nations, includ­ing Rus­sia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my grat­i­tude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights vio­la­tions car­ried out by the pow­er­ful rather than the pow­er­less. By refus­ing to com­pro­mise their prin­ci­ples in the face of intim­i­da­tion, they have earned the respect of the world. It is my inten­tion to trav­el to each of these coun­tries to extend my per­son­al thanks to their peo­ple and lead­ers.

The praise for Rus­sia “being the first to stand against human rights vio­la­tions car­ried out by the pow­er­ful rather than the pow­er­less” would cer­tain­ly come as a sur­prise to Russ­ian cit­i­zens, most of whom do not share that opin­ion of their own gov­ern­ment.

At the same press con­fer­ence, Snow­den announced his inten­tion to request asy­lum in Rus­sia. In doing so, he found a new lawyer: Ana­toly Kucher­e­na, who sits on the pub­lic coun­cil of the Fed­er­al Secu­ri­ty Bureau, the mod­ern-day incar­na­tion of the KGB. Kucher­e­na has told reporters that Snow­den wants to set­tle in Rus­sia, find a job, and live there per­ma­nent­ly.

Edward Snowden’s hand­writ­ten appli­ca­tion for asy­lum in Rus­sia, tak­en by Ana­toly Kucher­e­na

Though Con­gress and the NSA are cur­rent­ly in a tense show­down over domes­tic sur­veil­lance, the sto­ry is, inevitably, going to be about Snow­den — from anony­mous whistle­blow­er to dis­si­dent who gave up a cushy life in Hawaii to fugi­tive hid­ing out in an expen­sive hotel with­out the means to escape — and his even­tu­al fate. Mean­while, his FSB lawyer is bring­ing himfresh under­wear and Dos­toyevsky to make the time pass as he fends off offers of adop­tion and addi­tion­al mon­ey.

But make no mis­take about it: This is a defec­tion by any def­i­n­i­tion of the word (Mer­ri­am-Web­ster: “con­scious aban­don­ment of alle­giance or duty [as to a per­son, cause, or doc­trine]”). Snow­den told a group chat host­ed by theGuardian in June, “it would be fool­ish to sur­ren­der” to U.S. jus­tice “if you can do more good out­side of prison than in it.” He’s not com­ing back. And it looks increas­ing­ly like­ly that he’s going to stay in Rus­sia only on the con­di­tion that he coop­er­ate with their secu­ri­ty forces. It may not have been his orig­i­nal inten­tion, but it is the real­i­ty of his sit­u­a­tion. An intel­li­gence oper­a­tive with thou­sands of top secret doc­u­ments at his dis­pos­al defect­ing to Rus­sia is a big deal, no mat­ter how you slice it.

Snowden’s Helpers

Edward Snow­den didn’t act alone. He decid­ed to pil­fer thou­sands of doc­u­ments and flee the coun­try months before the Guardian began pub­lish­ing them, and he has been giv­en a remark­able mix­ture of pub­lic and pri­vate help to do so.Looking at a time­line of whom Snow­den con­tact­ed, it seems clear he did not act alone. Ear­ly on, activists with close ties to Wik­iLeaks were assist­ing Snow­den to con­tact oth­er jour­nal­ists while try­ing to ver­i­fy the doc­u­ments he pos­sessed. Once he left the coun­try, for­eign gov­ern­ments, notably Chi­na and Rus­sia, seem to have played a still-unclear role in help­ing Snow­den elude U.S. law enforce­ment.

The close involve­ment of so many peo­ple in his deci­sion to leak and then flee the coun­try rais­es wor­ry­ing ques­tions: Could any be crim­i­nal­ly liable? How coor­di­nat­ed was his escape?

But none of those ques­tions are answer­able. At the very least, Russ­ian offi­cials were appar­ent­ly involved in Snowden’s deci­sion to leave Hong Kong for Moscow, and Rus­sians with close ties to the Krem­lin are advis­ing and pro­vid­ing him with mon­ey. That does not mean this was a Russ­ian oper­a­tion from the start, but it would be naïve to assume that the Russ­ian intel­li­gence ser­vices are not active­ly work­ing with Snow­den while he’s con­fined to his hotel room.

If Snow­den had only leaked about the mas­sive sur­veil­lance of Amer­i­cans, he could fea­si­bly have had a case that he was a whistle­blow­er expos­ing gov­ern­ment over­reach. Pro­grams like the Ver­i­zon meta­da­ta col­lec­tion, while legal, could be viewed as an excess of sur­veil­lance. (The recent defeat of an amend­ment to lim­it that meta­da­ta col­lec­tion, brought to the floor of the House by Repub­li­can Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Justin Amash, only hap­pened by twelve votes.)

But he didn’t. Snow­den took his leaks far beyond mere whistle­blow­ing and turned them into a mas­sive attack on the very process of intel­li­gence gath­er­ing. Is Snow­den the next Phil Agee or the next Mar­tin and Mitchell? It’s too soon to say for cer­tain. Snow­den has not for­mal­ly revoked his cit­i­zen­ship, as Mar­tin and Mitchell did. He has, how­ev­er, been angri­ly leak­ing sen­si­tive data about the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty the way Agee did. With time, Agee’s moral con­vic­tions came under greater scruti­ny as his involve­ment with the KGB and Cuban intel­li­gence ser­vices emerged.

With the evo­lu­tion of Snowden’s deci­sions from dis­clos­ing domes­tic sur­veil­lance to uncov­er­ing for­eign sur­veil­lance — the role the NSA is man­dat­ed by law to per­form — and now to seek­ing asy­lum in Rus­sia, it’s dif­fi­cult to see his deci­sion as any­thing oth­er than a defec­tion.