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.