The Snowden saga continues to get weirder.
Let’s just pretend for a moment that the US government has it right, and that Edward Snowden, the renegade CIA and NSA employee who signed up with a government intelligence contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, so as to steal a huge swath of National Security Agency data that has the potential to destroy US intelligence operations around the globe, lay bare the NSA’s secret architecture and alert the world’s terrorists to how they are being monitored, is as vile traitor out to destroy America.
Where is the last place under such circumstances that the US would want him to wind up? For me, I’d say there’d be three of them: Iran, China and Russia.
So here’s Snowden, who for weeks has been trying to get to a safe haven in Latin America, stuck the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. It’s not that he wants to be there god knows! (This is, after all, a guy who called Hawaii a “heaven” on earth. He’s hardly the kind of person who’s hankering to spend his life shivering through Moscow winters.) After packing up his hard drives and computers loaded with NSA data, he went first from his home in Hawaii to Hong Kong, because he knew that Chinese city was a free-speech, free-communications world media capital. Once there, he granted interviews and had the Washington Post and the British Guardian newspaper, as well as the South China Morning Post, publish explosive reports about the NSA’s vast domestic spying operation. He probably figured he could fly from there across the Pacific to safety in Ecuador or Bolivia or Venezuela, or perhaps some other congenial South American democracy. After all, Brazil and Uruguay are both led at present by former leftist guerrillas and even Argentina has been pretty independent of the US of late. But the US responded to his whistleblowing by declaring him guilty of “espionage,” making him a spy and a traitor. It cancelled his US passport, effectively making him stateless, and demanded the China send him home to be prosecuted.
China didn’t want the diplomatic problems of accepting Snowden, and also didn’t want to hand him back, so it allowed him to fly out of Hong Kong to Russia, which these days an ally of China. Russia’s Putin had already stated that Snowden would be welcome there, but once Snowden was at the Moscow airport, Putin begin feeling the heat from the US, and Putin’s invitation was amended to say he could have asylum but only if he stopped leaking things that harmed “Russia’s partner” the US.
In case Snowden thought he could leave for Latin America, the US put the screws to Latin American countries, warning them that granting him asylum would cause grave economic and other harm to them for a long time to come. And to make things clearer, when it thought he might be on a flight to exile in Bolivia aboard the presidential jet of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was returning from a summit meeting in Russia, the US pressured four European allies — Spain, France, Portugal and Italy–to bar Morales’ plane from flying across Europe to Bolivia. This forced him to land in Austria, where the US pressured the Austrian government to enter and inspect the presidential plane. Snowden was not there, but the message was clear: planes carrying Snowden were subject to being grounded or worse. After all, under the Vienna Convention, the planes and boats carrying national heads of state are inviolate. It would have been completely legal for Morales to be ferrying Snowden to asylum in Bolivia, and grounding his flight was an act of war. Yet there was the US, flaunting international law entirely.
At that point you might say, “Well, the clever Obama administration fixed the problem: Snowden will end up stuck in Russia, under an agreement that he cannot leak anything more about the domestic spying program in the US. Problem solved.
Except think about that. A pissed-off Snowden will be in Russia — a country that the US fears so much it has ringed the place with anti-missile missile batteries, a country that had a deeply embedded spy ring in the US that was recently exposed and sent home, a country that is sending arms to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the US is trying to oust by arming rebel groups in the Syria. And Snowden, according to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, has information on his computer hard drives about the NSA’s and the CIA’s spying operations that he says could bring the whole US intelligence apparatus to a screeching halt. Things like, according to Snowden’s account, all the names and identities and locations and operations of the CIA’s global intelligence operations.
Snowden says he got these kinds of data, not because he wants to hurt America by releasing them, but because he knew (he’s no dummy!) that he needed some kind of “insurance” to protect himself. He has reportedly secreted copies of all his data with various people around the world, encrypted, but with instructions that they will get a key and an order to release everything if anything happens to him.
But let’s say he gets stuck and silenced in Russia. Does the US not think that at some point, in frustration, he won’t just say, ‘Oh the hell with it. I’m giving (or selling!) all this to the Russians.” Or maybe he won’t even get to that point. The Russians could just take it all one day while he’s out or sleeping. Hell, they could say it was a simple burglary.
Not a real bright idea, trapping Snowden in Russia is it?
Could it be that Snowden has more nasty details to release about what the NSA is doing to further the secret police state that the government is creating here at home, and it’s that informationwhich the Obama administration, the NSA, and their stooges in Congress are so anxious to keep under wraps, and not the global spying network?
If they were really so worried about exposure of the global spying activities of the NSA and CIA, the government would be cutting a deal with Snowden: Come home, return the data, and we’ll have that national discussion on surveillance that you want us to have and that the president says he wants to have. All is forgiven. The public, 55% of whom already think Snowden did the right thing in blowing the whistle, would be happy, the spooks would be safe to go about their nefarious business abroad, and we could all figure out in an open democratic way, how much privacy and civil liberty we really want to surrender in order to wage the country’s so-called “War” on terror.
The fact that the government is not doing this, but is instead driving Snowden into the arms of Russian intelligence tells me that this is really all about continuing apace the development of the totalitarian national security state in the US.
That’s the story that the US wants Snowden to be silenced on. And toward that end, since they can’t off him without triggering his “insurance” backup plan, trapping him in Russia makes much more sense than having him exiled in Venezuela or Bolivia or Cuba.
The relationship between Russia and the US is after all complex. The two countries are not enemies. They are rivals in some ways, and allies in others. Hell, without the Russians, there’s no International Space Station. Russia is a major trading partner. On some issues — Iran, Syria — the two countries are on opposing sides. But one area where they at least understand each other is intelligence. Even in the latter years of the Cold War between US and Soviet Union, there was a kind of code of behavior followed by the CIA and KGB. There was a grudging mutual respect. And today, there may be more than that. Both countries have been developing their own very extensive internal surveillance systems targeting political opposition. In Russia, the police state apparatus is used to suppress democratic opposition to Putin (who spent 15 years in the old Soviet KGB rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel); in the US it is used to disrupt and crush incipient popular movements like the 2011 Occupy Movement.
So the US may feel that the risk of losing all Snowden’s NSA spying data to Soviet intelligence is a small price to pay for keeping the NSA’s dirtier secrets about domestic spying from the American public.
If the Russians simply take advantage of the gift of getting to embarrass the US by offering asylum to Snowden on humanitarian grounds as a refugee from the dictatorial, civil liberties-threatening US, and then later help a disguised Snowden slip away to exile in Bolivia, I’ll be proved wrong. But if they keep him in Russia, on an asylum leash, I’ll be right and we should all be worried that there’s a lot more about the NSA that we need to learn.