Edward Snowden says he didn’t mean to end up in Russia when he fled the United States to leak secrets from his job at the NSA. He writes in his autobiography, Permanent Record, that he agonized about where to go. Europe was impossible because of extradition. Africa was a ‘no-go zone’ because the US ‘had a history of acting there with impunity’. Eventually, he went to Hong Kong and after hiding out there for a short time he made a dash for Ecuador, where he hoped to get asylum. But the US canceled his passport and, in what we’re told was an unfortunate coincidence, he got stuck in Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow as he changed planes. He had thought as he planned his escape from the US: ‘Russia was out because it was Russia…the US government wouldn’t have to do anything to discredit me other than point at the map.’ So he can’t have been surprised that many people thought both his theft of secrets and his disappearance must have been engineered by Russian intelligence.
Snowden revealed that America’s spy agencies were spying on Americans — routinely, illegally, and on an industrial scale. The government was reading your email — or at the very least seeing who you’d emailed, or called, or texted. President Trump is now ‘taking a very good look’ at pardoning a man he once called ‘a total traitor’ and a ‘spy who should be executed’. Perhaps Trump thinks that Snowden was all along a fellow warrior against the ‘Deep State’. One commentator had the unlikely explanation that this was electoral calculation, though it’s hard to see the kind of people who have ‘Pardon Snowden’ bumper stickers ever voting for Trump. More likely, this was Trump being as mercurial as usual, thinking aloud, teasing people by doing the unexpected. The cynical — and those who’ve read the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on collusion — might say that if you want to know what Trump will do in any particular situation, just ask what would best suit Russia’s interests. And so we are back to the question of whether Snowden was a Russian agent and intended to run to Moscow from the start.
He’s seemingly absolved of that charge by a former deputy director of the NSA, Chris Inglis, who said that Snowden was trying to get to South America. ‘He worked very hard and his lawyers worked very hard on his behalf to actually achieve that… This [stop in Moscow] was something that was done on the fly. It wasn’t carefully thought through.’ That statement is so helpful to Snowden’s cause that it’s pinned at the top of his Twitter feed. But if not a Russian agent, is Snowden a Kremlin patsy, a useful idiot? A former US intelligence officer told me that, to this day, Snowden is being looked after in Moscow by the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency. This former spy thought Snowden had been unwittingly recruited by the Russian intelligence services using ‘a cut-out’, namely Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. ‘I don’t think Eddie knew what the deal was until he reached Hong Kong. He has spilled all the beans in his seven years in Russia because that’s the deal for any defector.’
The deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s defense and security committee said: ‘Snowden did share intelligence.’ But did he hand over a few things, or everything? We don’t know but the US government has to act on the assumption that some of its most sensitive secrets about electronic spying were given to the Russia mafia state. Perhaps the totalitarian state of China, too, since Snowden stopped in Hong Kong. And what Snowden published might also have helped the Taliban, or Hezbollah, or Isis. The House Intelligence Committee said that Snowden was responsible for ‘the largest and most damaging’ release of classified information in US history. The committee issued a bipartisan report in 2016, signed by both Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff. ‘Snowden caused tremendous damage to national security, and the vast majority of the documents he stole have nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests…they instead pertain to military, defense, and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries…he handed over secrets that protect American troops overseas and secrets that provide vital defenses against terrorists and nation-states.’
Fifty years ago, Snowden would have had to take documents out of filing cabinets one by one and photograph or photocopy them. In 1969 and 1970, it took Daniel Ellsberg almost a year to copy 15,000 pages of documents from his classified safe, including the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, the US government’s secret study of the Vietnam war that he gave to the New York Times. In a similar span of time, Snowden took at least 100 times that volume of material, 1.5 million electronic documents — a pile more than three miles high if printed out, according to a one estimate. This shows how difficult it is for governments to keep secrets in the age of thumb drives and laptops. It’s also the most sympathetic explanation for why, as the House Intelligence Committee said, most of the documents did not reveal abuses of civil liberties but defense secrets. Ellsberg knew what he was taking because he had helped to write most of it; Snowden took so much that he could not have known exactly what he had.
There is another explanation. It is that Snowden was an attention seeker and malcontent who didn’t care what he took as long as it made him famous. The House Intelligence Committee report called Snowden ‘a serial exaggerator and fabricator’ with ‘a pattern of lying’ on his résumé and elsewhere. He was ‘repeatedly’ in trouble at work. Snowden had said his ‘breaking point’ came when the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told ‘bald-faced lies’ to Congress, having been asked if the NSA was engaged in bulk collection of data from Americans. But the committee said that Snowden had begun stealing the NSA’s secrets eight months earlier. He also rummaged around in the ‘personal network drives’ of his colleagues. He looked in HR files to see why he’d been denied a promotion. The former US intelligence officer I spoke to said Snowden ‘didn’t understand most of what he stole’. ‘Ed’s a nitwit, a millennial narcissist…I know his last supervisor at the NSA: he washed out on the job and decided to defect, basically.’
But whatever his motives and supposed flaws, Snowden told us things we absolutely needed to know. He told us that the US government had moved from the targeted surveillance of individuals to the mass surveillance of entire populations. As he writes in his autobiography, the US and its allies were building the capability to collect all of the world’s digital communications, store them indefinitely, and search through them at will. Snowden revealed a secret program called PRISM that allowed the NSA to routinely collect users’ data from Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo, among others. There was also ‘upstream collection’, which was ‘arguably even more invasive’. The NSA had secretly embedded wiretapping equipment with ‘obliging’ Internet service providers around the world. A program called ‘TURMOIL’ would make a copy of all the data coming through and look for anything ‘suspicious’. That, Snowden wrote, might be a particular email address, credit card number, or phone number of interest to the NSA; or just the geographic destination of your Internet activity; you might even become a target simply because you typed in the term ‘anonymous Internet proxy’ or the word ‘protest’. If TURMOIL did flag your internet traffic, another program called ‘TURBINE’ would automatically send malware back to your computer. It all happened ‘in less than 686 milliseconds’ and then the NSA would be able to see everything you did online. An NSA analyst could play back recordings of your computer screen, moment by moment. They would have your emails, chats, files, photos, videos and browser history. ‘Your entire digital life now belongs to them.’
These were illegal and warrantless searches of US citizens because the collection happened automatically and in bulk. Snowden and his supporters say that no one in the US spy agencies has ever been prosecuted for these illegal searches — while he is on the run for revealing them. PRISM, TURMOIL, and TURBINE were all appropriately sinister names for programs that — in the detail of how they operated — told us much about the power of the modern state over the individual. As new technologies like facial recognition become more efficient, the state will become even more powerful — and power is always, and inevitably, abused. Thanks to Snowden, there have been some limits placed on the ability of the US government and their allies to snoop on us. That’s why a group of German parliamentarians have nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize; why some Americans want his statue in a park. But the US government has the right to some secrets, those that help to keep Americans safe in a dangerous world. The good that Snowden did has to be weighed against the harm he did. He is both hero and villain. So, a Nobel prize is too much but a pardon for Snowden might be the right thing to do. Bring him home from Moscow.