As the world condemns Russia’s continued support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in the wake of MH17, Edward Snowden is asking Vladimir Putin for an extended asylum.
It’s an awkward circumstance for a self-proclaimed human rights and Internet freedom activist, even beyond taking refuge in a land with a terrible human rights record and no internet freedom.
The deeper reality is that Snowden is both practically and politically useful to Putin.
“As a consultant on how the NSA works, he is very useful,” Independent defence analyst Pevel Felgenhauer told the Russian paper Novaya Gazeta, noting that Snowden can explain how U.S. spy agencies operate.
The 31-year-old’s knowledge of the NSA and the CIA includes not only technical details but also insight into internal procedures such as recruiting and vetting processes.
“To a foreign intelligence service, Snowden is priceless,” Robert Caruso, a former assistant command security manager in the Navy and a consultant, told BI in April. “He can be exploited again and again.”
Snowden flew to Hong Kong on May 20 after stealing an estimated 1.7 million NSA documents. After 11 days off the grid, the NSA systems administrator gave about 200,000 documents to journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald.
Caruso explained that while U.S. agencies can “change names of facilities, physically relocate the more sensitive activities, [reassign] personnel he endangered, [etc.]” to mitigate damage from leaked documents, Snowden cannot alter or unlearn the granular level of detail with which he knows NSA systems.
And the way that the CIA technician ended up in Russia suggests he is in over his head. After identifying himself on June 9, Snowden scrambled to find asylum — he showed documents to the South China Morning Post and visited the Russian consulate in Hong Kong three times — before boarding a flight to Moscow on July 23.
“He does not have the training to deal with this kind of situation,” Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist who co-wrote a book on the FSB, told BI in January. “Every time, he found himself in some new difficult circumstances and he was forced to make some decision. And long term, it’s a very successful thing [for Russia].”
So unless Snowden reaches a plea deal with Washington and Putin decides to let him leave, the former CIA technician is stuck in a Kremlin-controlled environment.
Consequently, Soldatav believes that “Snowden made a great mistake when he decided to go to Moscow.”
The worst part for Snowden, and sympathetic Americans everywhere, is that Russia may never let him go: He now knows how Russia’s post-Soviet security services (FSB) treats their guests, and he is a valuable trophy for Putin.
“The very presence of Snowden is of symbolic importance to Russia,” political scientist Alexei Makarkin told AFP. “Snowden has become a symbol of the struggle for freedom, and that’s useful for Russia. Today, that’s one of the strongest arguments [Russia] could put to the international community [as relations with the West deteriorate].”
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