The revelation this week that former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden had already received help from the Russian government during his sojourn in Hong Kong in June—according to reports, he even stayed at the Russian consulate for two days before flying to Moscow—has put a new perspective on his relations with the Kremlin. Over the summer, there has been much debate about whether Snowden is a courageous whistleblower or a traitor. Even if he started out closer to the former, his protection by the Russians may increasingly make him appear a defector who fled one country in order to serve another.
Snowden is an unlikely spy. As some have argued, by exposing secret and possibly illegal government security programs to a global public, he was acting against uncontrolled state power everywhere—something that might be particularly threatening to the Kremlin. Russia has a far more pervasive security apparatus than the US does, and is known for dealing aggressively with anyone who tries to criticize it. There is no word in the Russian language that accurately describes “whistle-blowing.” If one of Russia’s citizens had done what Snowden did, he or she would already be serving a life sentence in a labor camp.
But Snowden’s revelations about extensive US government eavesdropping (including on American citizens and friendly Western governments) were also an unexpected propaganda boon for Moscow, though at the cost of increased tension in its relations with the White House. After being criticized by the Americans for years over its human rights violations, Russia was finally able to point the finger back at them for “persecuting” Snowden. (While Snowden was still in limbo in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport earlier this summer, Russian President Putin announced that his government would not grant Snowden asylum unless he agreed to stop revealing information that would “harm the interests of the US.” Clearly, that was just posturing, apparently in order to persuade President Obama to keep his commitment to meet with Putin in Moscow in September for bilateral talks, which Obama has since declined to do.)
But offering asylum to Snowden may bring more tangible benefits to Russia as well. The Russian security services have no doubt demanded access to the laptops Snowden brought with him. And they will also insist on debriefings. As the Associated Press recently pointed out,
The disclosure of Snowden’s hacking prowess inside the NSA also could dramatically increase the perceived value of his knowledge to foreign governments, which would presumably be eager to learn any counter-detection techniques that could be exploited against U.S. government networks.
Snowden has already been accused by the US Justice Department of violating two clauses of the 1917 Espionage Act by engaging in “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “the willful communication of classified intelligence information to an unauthorized person,” along with theft of government property. (Bradley Manning was found guilty of similar espionage charges this month.) If Snowden complies with Russian requests for information about the NSA—or for that matter, about the CIA, an earlier employer—then he leaves himself vulnerable to the further and much more serious charge, under the Espionage Act, of “aiding the enemy.”
Is Snowden’s flight to Russia turning him into precisely the traitor US authorities accuse him of being? Coincidentally, it was fifty years ago in June that the world learned the shocking news about another Westerner who fled to Russia, the former high-level British intelligence officer Kim Philby. It is probably unfair to draw comparisons between Snowden and Philby, whose betrayal of his country as a double agent did unprecedented damage and cost many lives. Snowden was not an agent of a foreign state, and was apparently motivated to divulge NSA secrets to journalists by his indignation at the discovery of the NSA’s pervasive and intrusive eavesdropping program. But the longer Snowden remains in Russia, at the mercy of his Russian hosts, the greater the chances of his ending up like Philby and living the life of a man without a country.
Philby, as is well known, began operating as an agent of the Soviets during his years at Cambridge in the 1930s. After he joined MI6 (British foreign intelligence) and rose to become the head of counterintelligence against the Soviets, Philby was privy to MI6’s most sensitive information, including the identities of the “moles” the British had recruited within the Soviet secret services and the contents of intelligence communications between Britain and its allies. He also worked, from 1949 to 1952, in Washington as the British liaison officer to the CIA and the FBI, which gave him additional access to top secret American intelligence, such as the Venona project, which involved decoding intercepts of secret Soviet communications worldwide. Philby was by far the most valuable agent that the Soviets ever recruited. Though there were suspicions about him for much of the 1950s, he managed to evade conclusive discovery of his perfidy by the British until January 1963, when he was forced to flee secretly—and with Soviet help—from Beirut to Moscow.
Philby’s treatment after his defection does not bode well for what Snowden might expect in Moscow. Philby was provided with ample material comforts but, according to Rufina Philby, the Russian woman he married in 1971, he “suffered greatly from having nothing to do and feeling unwanted.” Sometime in the 1960s, he even tried to take his own life—by slitting his wrists. Philby was very much at the mercy of his handlers, who kept him isolated from Soviet society, such as it was, and bugged his flat and telephone. He was not invited to KGB foreign intelligence headquarters, at Yasenevo, until 1977, a full fourteen years after his arrival in Moscow. At some point he began giving occasional lectures at a safe house in Moscow to young KGB trainees who were heading for diplomatic posts in the West. But much of his time was spent drinking at home. The ravages of alcohol addiction, from which he had suffered well before his defection, continued to plague him until he died in 1988.
Whatever Snowden’s intelligence value to the Russians, he will not necessarily be treated any better than Philby. He is twenty-one years younger than Philby was when he arrived in Moscow. He can probably, as Philby did not, master the Russian language if he puts his mind to it. And he reportedly has been offered a job by the Russian on-line social network VKontakte, as a specialist in protecting the security of its subscribers’ communications. (A great irony, given the well-documented efforts of the Russian security services to penetrate and control social networking sites.) Snowden presumably also has access to the world beyond Russia through the Internet, while Philby lived in Moscow under an assumed name, once a week picking up outdated British newspapers from a post-office box, and had only occasional visits from his children living in Britain.
But Snowden will nonetheless feel isolated and tightly controlled by Russian authorities. His lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, who Snowden selected from two names offered him to by the Russian border police at the airport, is known to have close ties with both the Kremlin and the Federal Security Service (FSB), which controls the border police.
Kucherena’s background, and the fact that he serves as chairman of a board for public oversight of the police and security services, including the FSB, suggest that he will do everything he can to orchestrate the Snowden case in accordance with the Kremlin’s interests. Kucherena has also said publicly that, while his client can live in a hotel or rent an apartment, “the personal safety issue is a very serious one for him.” So Snowden won’t be strolling around Red Square or going out to Moscow’s bars and restaurants for entertainment.
More to the point, he is bound to suffer disillusionment with his new hosts—perhaps like what happened to Philby, who arrived with far stronger ideological commitments. In an interview while he was still in Hong Kong in June, Snowden, referring to the interception of private communications by the NSA, said, “I do not want to live in a society that does this sort of thing.” He did not foresee that he would find himself now in a place where his every move and every contact would be monitored by a government that is far more controlling of its citizens than its American counterpart.