Edward Snowden’s interview with HBO comedian John Oliver was a mistake that exposed him to critical questions for the first time, says U.S. Naval War College and Harvard Extension School professor Tom Nichols in The Federalist.
“The media team and intelligence handlers around Edward Snowden finally committed a major blunder,” Nichols writes.
Snowden has been living in Russia since he flew there from Hong Kong on June 23, 2013. During his time in Russia, Snowden has only been interviewed in well-planned settings and mostly by journalists sympathetic to his cause.
Oliver’s aggressive questioning is the first time Snowden has been challenged so directly.
Nichols, who has written extensively about Russia, says the HBO interview suggests “either that the Russian spooks now in control of Snowden’s life don’t watch Oliver’s show, or that they were led to believe Oliver is just another liberal journalist who would allow Snowden to run his usual All-American Kid act.”
According to Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, the American has been “surrounded by” members of Russia’s post-Soviet security services (FSB) from the beginning.
Soldatov, who co-wrote a book on the FSB, explained that security services do things in steps, and he detailed how the FSB would likely want to have handled Snowden after he reached out to Moscow in Hong Kong.
“The first step is to get Snowden to Moscow,” Soldatov told Business Insider in 2014. “The next step is to have him locked for 40 days [to decide what to do] … The next step is to provide him asylum … Then to say, ‘Someone is looking for you, you are in danger.’ … And then you have the guy in a controlled environment, and then you can work with him.”
The interview started with light humour and wit to highlight Snowden’s precarious situation before challenging the 31-year-old on the thinking behind his theft and disclosures.
“How many of those documents have you actually read?” Oliver asked, referring to the estimated 200,000 NSA documents Snowden stole and turned over to journalists in Hong Kong.
“I have evaluated all of the documents in the archive,” Snowden replied.
“You’ve read every single one?”
“Well, I do understand what I turned over.”
“There’s a difference between understanding what’s in the documents and reading what’s in the documents,” Oliver countered.
“I recognise the concern,” said Snowden, who previously asserted that he “carefully evaluated every single document” that he disclosed.
‘Snowden made a great mistake’
Snowden’s body language — which has been dissected before — suggests he is uncomfortable as he repeatedly looked away throughout the interview.
“Both gamblers and intelligence analysts know that constantly looking down and away while speaking in a conversation is a ‘tell,'” Nichols writes. “You should stop doing it.”
Nichols concludes the HBO segment is important because now “we’ve had our first glimpse of the real Edward Snowden” instead of the largely uncritical interviews over the last 22 months.
“Snowden is a lost boy, in over his head in a dangerous place after doing something he himself didn’t quite understand,” Nichols writes. “If Snowden can’t handle Oliver, you can be quite sure he couldn’t handle his Russian security service interrogators.”
Soldatov also said that Snowden is in over his head.
“Remember, Snowden is not a trained intelligence agent,” Soldatov told Business Insider. “He does not have the training to deal with this kind of situation.”
Consequently, Soldatov added that “Snowden made a great mistake when he decided to go to Moscow.”
It’s worked out alright so far. But as Nichols notes, “both the Russians and Snowden’s other advisers are losing their touch. “
The HBO interview starts around 16:00:
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