Initially Snowden served as a legitimate whistleblower — he published the first the first concrete evidence of the NSA’s domestic surveillance apparatus, corroborating claims made by previous whistleblowers and raising serious questions about the constitutionality of the NSA running a widespread, warrantless domestic dragnet with weak oversight.
But now there is a growing body of evidence that Snowden botched the endgame and may have unintentionally leaked more highly valuable U.S. national security intel than he meant to.
He is now in the hands of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) — i.e., the post-Soviet successor of the KGB — and that he may have already leaked a lot more information about NSA capabilities than he ever intended, possibly against his will.
On May 20 Snowden arrived in Hong Kong from Hawaii with “four laptop computers that enable him to gain access to some of the US government’s most highly-classified secrets.”
On June 1 he met with journalists, including Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, and began providing them with classified documents. On June 9 he identified himself, which placed on bullseye on his back for U.S., Chinese, and Russian intelligence to see.
“He’s a kid, I really think he’s a kid, I think he never anticipated this would be such a big matter in Hong Kong,” Albert Ho, Snowden’s Hong Kong-based lawyer, told The New York Times.
On June 23 he flew to Moscow, and a radio host from Radio Echo of Moscow described what she saw in the airport’s transit zone on the day of Snowden’s arrival (emphasis ours):
“I saw about 20 Russian officials, supposedly FSB agents in suits, crowding around somebody in a restricted area of the airport,” Bychkova told Anna Nemtsova of Foreign Policy. “The Kremlin pretends they have nothing to do with him being stuck in Moscow, but in reality they’re all over him.”
At that point Snowden — reportedly carrying four laptops with troves of highly classified data belonging to the world’s largest spy agency — had just been in China for more than a month.
Russ Tice, the original NSA whistleblower who recently revealed that the NSA wiretapped President Barack Obama in 2004, found it hard to believe that Snowden would carry physical data on him — because of how dumb that would be.
“It would be be foolish,” Tice told Business Insider. “If he went out to lunch, the Chinese authorities would be searching his hotel room … to try to see if he had anymore physical goodies on NSA. And if he did, he certainly would not have left Hong Kong with that information without the Hong Kong authorities making sure they got it from him.”
To those who think Snowden held on to his computers — and there are no indications of the contrary — the implications are simple.
“That stuff is gone,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia told The Washington Post. “I guarantee the Chinese intelligence service got their hands on that right away. If they imaged the hard drives and then returned them to him, well, then the Russians have that stuff now.”
From The New York Times:
Two Western intelligence experts, who worked for major government spy agencies, said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong, and that he said were with him during his stay at a Hong Kong hotel.
If that were the case, they said, China would no longer need or want to have Mr. Snowden remain in Hong Kong.
Earlier this week Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, said that he would “prefer not to deal with this issue at all. It’s like shearing a pig — too much squeaking, too little wool.”
Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin doubts that:
“The special services understand that this person knows a lot and that it would be useful to talk to him. Snowden is not a human rights defender, and in fact there is something to shear from him.”
Putin also said that Snowden is a “free person” who can leave Russia whenever he wants, but that doesn’t seem to be the case either.
Here’s what a source reportedly connected with Snowden told Interfax:
“Snowden’s American passport is void and he is not in possession of any other document with which he can prove his identity. For this reason, he has to stay in Sheremetyevo’s transit zone and cannot leave Russia, cannot buy a ticket,”
As for Snowden’s attempt to obtain political asylum and travel to Ecuador, Univision has published a document apparently granting Snowden safe passage while the country’s foreign minister denies that such a document exists.
The document, which appears to be from General Consul of Ecuador in London, states that it was provided “to allow the bearer to travel to the territory of Ecuador for the purpose of political asylum.”
It adds a request “to the relevant authorities of the transit countries to give the appropriate help, so that” Snowden can reach Ecuador.
But Putin doesn’t have to grant that request, especially when Snowden has no passport, just like he doesn’t have to grant President Obama’s request that Snowden be returned to the U.S.
In hindsight, this is probably the worst path around the world if you’re an American carrying classified information with the intention of selectively leaking it.
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