With the latest disclosures that fugitive leaker Edward Snowden made off with the keys to the entire National Security Agency treasury, one has to wonder: What is he thinking?
Snowden has already boasted about revealing enough classified information on U.S. government snooping on civilians to have three felony charges and an extradition warrant brought against him.
His denial that Russian and Chinese authorities have had access to the motherlode of NSA files with which he absconded provokes derisive laughter among those familiar with the impressive hacking abilities at the disposal of both Moscow and Beijing.
Revelations of expansive data collection abroad have strained U.S. relations with allies and adversaries alike, from Snowden's leaks during his Hong Kong sojourn last month to the more recent disclosures that the NSA also spied on millions of private communications in Brazil and Mexico.
Now he's made clear through his leaking intermediary, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, that he has made off with thousands of sensitive documents that provide "blueprints" of NSA policies and practices that, if revealed, would help those subject to U.S. clandestine surveillance to evade it.
Admitting that he took files that could undermine the NSA's priority task of intercepting and averting terrorist plots would seem to raise the stakes for any country thinking about granting him asylum. It's one thing for a person privy to information about intelligence gathering to disclose the existence of perceived abuses. It's another to threaten to reveal the methods and strategies of national security programs, thus providing a road map for escaping the notice of counter-terrorism operatives.
Some legal experts see the escalating severity of Snowden's disclosures as prejudicing his case, should he end up facing U.S. prosecution. Others, though, say he may be working from a strategy of exposing what he sees as a systemwide violation of constitutional rights by the NSA.
"Snowden may be arguing that the entire architecture of NSA surveillance structure, practices and strategies exceeds legal and constitutional bounds," said Joe W. Pitts III, a lecturer in social responsibility, human rights and ethics at Stanford Law School. "If this is the case, then there may be more of a legal justification on Snowden's side than appears at first blush."
Snowden continues to cast himself as a principled fighter for privacy rights, and has drawn support from libertarians and leftists for spotlighting the breadth of U.S. surveillance.
A Swedish sociology professor, Stefan Svallfors of Umea University, on Monday announced that he had nominated Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize for his "heroic effort at great personal cost." But it was a quixotic gesture, given that the deadline for nominees passed five months ago and previous proposals to bestow the prestigious honor on leakers like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning have failed.
Greenwald, in an interview with the Associated Press on Sunday, said Snowden made off with thousands of sensitive documents as both proof of what he considers data-gathering excess and as an insurance policy against getting taken out by a U.S. covert operation.
"In order to take documents with him that proved that what he was saying was true, he had to take ones that included very sensitive, detailed blueprints of how the NSA does what they do," Greenwald told the AP in Rio de Janeiro. "I think it would be harmful to the U.S. government, as they perceive their own interests, if the details of those programs were revealed."
The news service quoted Greenwald, a former lawyer who has lived in Brazil for eight years while writing exposes on U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, as saying Snowden has devised a way of having the highly sensitive material released in the event of his untimely death or disappearance.
"It's really just a way to protect himself against extremely rogue behavior on the part of the United States, by which I mean violent actions toward him, designed to end his life, and it's just a way to ensure that nobody feels incentivized to do that," Greenwald told the AP.
The threats being telegraphed by Snowden from his precarious refuge in a transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport seem to have given Russian President Vladimir Putin further pause in considering the fugitive's asylum request. Snowden told human rights activists with whom he was allowed to meet at the airport Friday that he had appealed to the Kremlin to let him stay in Russia until he can make his way to one of the Latin American countries that have said they would take him in.
Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who was among those who met with Snowden, said Monday that the fugitive's bid to stay in Russia was delayed because "he knows nothing" about the legal procedures for requesting asylum. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed over the weekend that authorities hadn't yet seen an application for refuge from Snowden.
“He arrived on our territory without an invitation. He was not flying to us, he was flying in transit to other countries,” Putin
during a meeting with Russian students at a summer camp on Gogland island, in the Gulf of Finland.
Putin was quoted by the Russia Today network as saying Snowden knew the conditions for staying in Russia: that he cease "political activity" that is damaging to the U.S. government and Moscow's relations with Washington. Snowden withdrew his original asylum petition on July 3 but announced Friday that he was resubmitting the request so that he could stay in Russia – beyond the transit area where he has been marooned for more than three weeks – while trying to negotiate onward travel to a Latin American haven.
Snowden’s attitude toward compliance with the Russian condition that he muzzle himself “is shifting,” Putin said. But he added that the asylum issue “is not clear now” and shrugged off questions on where Snowden was likely to go.
"How should I know?" Putin asked indifferently. "That's his life, his fate."