Cut to scene: Ed Snowden flees to Hong Kong, spending his 30th birthday there at the Russian consulate. Yet we are told his immediate run to Moscow was both unplanned and caught the Russian government completely by surprise. Some tabulate the cascading coincidences intertwining Snowden and Russian operatives or their known consorts. The sheer weight of incidents is non-trivial.
As with all things, data by itself is not information. The key questions remain unanswered: (i) when did Snowden decide to be an adversary of the U.S. government?; (ii) how did he reach that decision – by himself or did Others recruit or encourage him?; (iii) carrying out his actions, did he have help and from whom?
Snowden’s 30th birthday in the Russian Hong Kong consulate is the break line. From there, official Moscow’s knowledge of Snowden, his assets and his goals can’t be plausibly denied. Putin by July denied Snowden was a Russian agent and that the Russian government was not working with him – “with all authority”. Putin then made a point of declaring that “Snowden is a strange guy.” (We haven’t heard the original Russian, but if Putin used the word ненормальный for ‘strange’ the meaning is far more severe).
Our take? Actual events indicate Snowden self-identified himself (even if initally anonymously) to hacktivists and Wikileaks early on. We believe this first occurred when he was working for Dell. Wikileaks assuredly would have relayed his existence and intent to the Russsians. (SVR, GRU or FSB – you sort that one out (and that answer matters when resolving the ultimate questions of Russian official position)). Wikileaks, their associates and Assange personally are too dependent on Russian monetary and soft power support to do otherwise. And they share an agenda to destroy American power. That means the Russians likely had at least 2 years of advance knowledge of something potentially happening – but not necessarily any granular or specific details.
Knowledge and action are two different things. We don’t believe the Russians had an active role in directing Snowden’s activities before Hong Kong. And the ‘coincidences’ remain mostly that. Or signify passive Russian observation. Why? Snowden would have known an essential element of any polygraph is the ‘under control or influence of a foreign power.” There’s also little indication that Snowden’s beau geste and flight to Hong Kong was choreographed professionally. Nor once he was in Hong Kong is there any indication of any design at all other than hope the Chinese would take him in. Even Snowden’s Chinese lawyer was mystified by Snowden’s emotional immaturity as a 29 year old. Plus, Snowden’s choice of journalists – initially the WaPo and then belatedly Greenwald when the WaPo moved too cautiously – played out ad hoc. Certainly, Snowden’s botched run to Moscow was not in any professional Russian end game.
Regarding motive, we see little benefit for Russia in the short and medium term. She has and had far larger issues at stake with the U.S. and the West than such a jury-rigged affair. Moreover, the Russians have the least to gain from irritating the West and Western security services before Sochi, Putin’s $50 billion priority. (And $50 billion to Russia is a lot of money). Add the personal and national prestige invested in Putin chairing the G-20 Summit in Peter? Even with all the internal turmoil, can’t imagine anyone in the FSB/SVR/GRU complex bringing this debacle to the Kremlin as a ‘win’. (Yezhov and Stalin are gone but there are still plenty of basements in Moscow to reward such ‘success’.)
If the Russians were aware of Snowden’s possibility (in general terms, which we believe likely), observing was sufficient. Who can resist a good car wreck? Particularly since the Russians already had most of NSA’s secrets and from its Five Eyes partners U.K., Canada, New Zealand, Australia via the earlier GRU recruitment of a Canadian traitor.
We believe Putin to be technically correct, Snowden was not a “Russian agent” — technically. And we believe Putin that he personally wanted nothing to do with Snowden after he arrived at the Hong Kong consulate seeking Russian allies in a war on NSA. Putin’s personality values loyalty and disdains traitors in principle. And Russian statecraft makes demands.
Once Snowden arrives in Moscow, no one rational can deny that he willingly put himself under FSB control. That can mean far less than people read into it. It’s not clear the Russians are greatly interested in formally debriefing him. After all, the Russians already know more than Snowden does. And Snowden, for all his exploitive cunning as a systems adminsitrator, is not experienced enough institutionally and subject-matter wise himself to understand and extrapolate much from what he stole. And if the Russians can steal the data from The Guardian, Wikileaks or New York Times and truthfully say they had no formal debriefs with Snowden, it’s a win-win.
The wisest American course was to allow Snowden to transit out of Moscow. And either intercept his flight or physically detain him into custody once he landed in a third country. (Or if he had an accident). The entire affair to date, from Snowden’s ridiculous access to Community secrets to the clumsy, hamfisted diplomacy, is both farce and unnecessary tragedy.