Snowden’s… Defection?

Today Edward Snow­den announced his inten­tion to accept Russia’s offer of asy­lum at a meet­ing of human rights groups allowed into the tran­sit zone of Shereme­tyevo airport.

The meet­ing was attended (I’m sure by coin­ci­dence) by Olga Kostina, who sits on the board of state-owned oil com­pany Transneft who also runs PR for the FSB (Russia’s suc­ces­sor to the KGB) when she’s not run­ning her state-supported human rights group Sopro­tivle­nie (“Resistance”).

In 2000, the authors of this book worked at Izves­tia. That sum­mer,  Solda­tov was called by Olga Kostina, a pub­lic rela­tions offi­cer [at the Min­istry of Inte­rior, which runs the FSB] who had once worked for MENATAP, a bank owned by oli­garch Mikhail Khodor­kovsky. She explained that the FSB had cre­ated an “unof­fi­cial” press ser­vice to which jour­nal­ists could turn more freely than to the agency’s offi­cial pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­ter, and she was hired to orga­nize this work…

The fol­low­ing week Kostina invited Solda­tov to join the “pool” of jour­nal­ists briefed by the FSB. Solda­tov was told that there were five jour­nal­ists from dif­fer­ent news­pa­pers in the pool, who were briefed reg­u­larly at the Lubyanka headquarters.

Olga’s hus­band, Kon­stan­tin, is also a renowned polit­i­cal oper­a­tive who until 2012 was neck-deep in United Rus­sia, the party that ush­ered Vladimir Putin back into office last year. Offi­cials at Shereme­tyevo Air­port orga­nized the event and pro­vided pas­sage to the activists and jour­nal­ists attend­ing the meet­ing with Snowden.

Despite this, a whole lot of oth­er­wise smart peo­ple, rang­ing from human rights activists to jour­nal­ists to aca­d­e­mics, still think this is just a whistle­blower seek­ing pro­tec­tion from polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion rather than a sophis­ti­cated intel­li­gence oper­a­tion against the United States.

As a rule, when a cleared intel­li­gence employee seeks refuge in another coun­try run­ning a hos­tile intel­li­gence ser­vice while car­ry­ing giga­bytes of top secret doc­u­ments, that isn’t the behav­ior of a whistle­blower. That is the behav­ior of a defec­tor. The involve­ment of known FSB oper­a­tives at his asy­lum accep­tance — and the sud­denly warm treat­ment of HRW and Trans­parency Inter­na­tional after months of gov­ern­ment harass­ment — sug­gests this was a text­book intel­li­gence oper­a­tion, and not a brave plea for asy­lum from polit­i­cal persecution.

The Rus­sians are very good at what they do. And so, to be fair, is Wik­ileaks. The anti-secrecy orga­ni­za­tion (well, anti-other-people’s-secrecy con­sid­er­ing the dra­con­ian NDAs they make employ­ees sign) has a close rela­tion­ship to a renown holo­caust denier named Israel Shamir who brags that he is Wik­ileaks’ rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the Russ­ian and Belaruss­ian gov­ern­ments. John Schindler describes the connection:

Not sur­pris­ingly, awk­ward ques­tions fol­lowed includ­ing in The Guardian, not exactly a right-wing rag. Reports fol­lowed – all links here are to The Guardian, which given that newspaper’s cur­rent involve­ment with the Snow­den case should indi­cate some­thing – that Shamir, is indeed deeply involved in the Wik­ileaks oper­a­tion: As “Adam,” Shamir (along with his Swedish son, a well-known anti-Semitic activist), has a key role in Wik­ileaks deci­sionshe was the edi­tor of the group’s Russian-related US diplo­matic cables that were leaked by PFC Bradley Man­ning, and per­haps most dis­taste­fully, he was involved in a smear cam­paign against the Swedish women who accused Julian Assange of rape (the rea­son he remains holed up in the Ecuado­rian embassy in London).

Wik­ileaks once, in 2010, set their sights on attack­ing Rus­sia just as strongly as they’d attacked the U.S.

We have [com­pro­mis­ing mate­ri­als] about Rus­sia, about your gov­ern­ment and busi­ness­men,” Mr. Assange told the pro-government daily Izves­tia. “But not as much as we’d like… We will pub­lish these mate­ri­als soon.”

He then dropped a hint that’s likely to be ner­vously parsed in Russia’s cor­ri­dors of power: “We are helped by the Amer­i­cans, who pass on a lot of mate­r­ial about Rus­sia,” to Wik­iLeaks, he said.

That seems to have gone out the win­dow, if only because of their own asso­ciates’ close rela­tion­ship to repres­sive gov­ern­ments. In fact, any ani­mos­ity toward Moscow seems to have van­ished, con­sid­er­ing the state­ment Snow­den wrote under the advise­ment of Wik­ileaks (who pub­lished it on their site today).

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. Chechens, democ­rats, human rights work­ers, aid work­ers, gays and les­bians, minori­ties, and polit­i­cal dis­si­dents all have suf­fered hor­ren­dous abuse in just the last two years.

Then again, naïveté seems to drive Snow­den as much as any prin­ci­ples do. Last month he said his con­science would not per­mit him to live in a sur­veil­lance state any­more… from his hotel room in Hong Kong, China, one of the most heav­ily state-surveilled coun­tries on the planet. Now he brags, from Rus­sia, of Russia’s com­mit­ment to human rights and stick­ing up for the lit­tle guy.

Snow­den told reporters today that he has no desire to harm the U.S., and wants the coun­try to “suc­ceed,” what­ever that means. I’m sure the White House is relieved to know a 30-year old IT worker has its best inter­ests in mind as he preaches about human rights from one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.

Most of Snowden’s most promi­nent defend­ers were in touch with him long before he chose to leak; Wik­ileaks, which has devel­oped deeper ties to the Russ­ian and Beloruss­ian gov­ern­ments, appar­ently helped Snow­den travel to Moscow. This looks like the first trickle of infor­ma­tion before a bizarre — and com­plex — intel­li­gence oper­a­tion gets blown open in the pub­lic. That doesn’t mean Wik­ileaks wit­tingly par­tic­i­pated (use­ful idiots abound) but I bet money U.S. coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence offi­cials are now won­der­ing just how deep the Rus­sia con­nec­tion to Snow­den — and, to Wik­ileaks — really goes.

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