Snowden a prize for Russians -- until they have his secrets


Now that Russian intelligence services have presumably gotten what they want from Edward Snowden — his treasure trove of U.S. intelligence data and the chance to embarrass the Obama administration — they are showing the National Security Agency leaker to the door.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that his security services weren’t working with the young American fugitive may have been semantically correct: Agents could copy Snowden’s confidential computer files without his cooperation, as he has been in their custody for days in a diplomatic no man’s land at Sheremetyevo airport.

The Kremlin’s claims to have wanted no part in the American whistleblower’s global search for asylum are little more convincing than the assertions of disinterest in his intelligence motherlode. It was Putin’s own spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who said two weeks ago that any request by Snowden for asylum would be duly considered.


The most eyebrow-raising statements have come from Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with their assertions that Snowden is beyond their legal reach because he hasn’t physically crossed the border through passport control. Legions of security agents and border guards patrol the “transit zone” between arrival gates and immigration checkpoints, and undesirables are routinely detained and sent back to their home countries.

Putin and Lavrov confirmed Tuesday that Snowden had been at Sheremetyevo since Sunday. Neither officials nor Russian media have said whether the 30-year-old, wanted on felony espionage charges, is at the grim airport hotel where travelers stay when in transit to another country, or in the immigration lockup where those arriving without proper entry documents are held.

“Mr. Snowden did fly into Moscow,” Putin told journalists in Finland, where he was on an official visit Tuesday. “For us it was completely unexpected.”

Russian intelligence services “never worked with Mr. Snowden and aren’t working with him today,” Putin added.

Russia experts expressed deep skepticism over Putin’s suggestion there has been no perusal of the confidential contents of Snowden’s baggage.

“It strains credibility to believe that there has been no contact between Russian authorities and Snowden when he was in the transit area,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s this guy walking around with as many as four computers and thumb drives full of classified information and the Russian intelligence services haven’t gotten ahold of it? Whatever was on those devices has been copied.”

Russian security analysts were also weighing in with their assumptions that agents were debriefing Snowden.

“This interesting fish has swum into our nets of its own accord and it would be unthinkable of our special services to miss this rare chance to talk to a U.S. defector,” said Alexei Kondaurov, a retired general of the Soviet-era intelligence service.

Snowden is not known to have defected, and all indications prior to his arrival in Moscow were that he sought only to expose NSA surveillance excesses.

Kuchins suspects that Putin was sincere in his encouragement of Snowden to move on. “The sooner the better,” the Kremlin leader said, so as not to damage the “business-like character of our relations with the U.S.”

“By allowing him to come to Moscow, they got access to whatever he’s got. That’s significant in and of itself,” Kuchins said.

Putin called Snowden “a free man,” able to move on to wherever he is granted asylum.

In fact, the longer Snowden remains stranded in the purgatory of the airport pre-arrival area, the more time potential receiving countries have to rethink helping him evade U.S. justice. Even Ecuador, where authorities have said he would be welcome, may be worrying now that the in-your-face gesture to Washington might cost the nation renewal of special U.S. trade preferences. The trade pact, which expires next week, supports $400 million in exports each year and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

International criminal, extradition and refugee laws converge in the Snowden case to complicate what might seem a simple request for deportation, said Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, a Stanford professor of international and national security law. But politics is the real impediment to resolving the standoff, he said, blaming the burdened relationship between Moscow and Washington.

Andrew Weiss, a former White House advisor on Russia during the Clinton administration, said Russian officials provoked the latest friction by inserting themselves into the U.S. scandal.

“They could have worked hard to prevent the kind of media circus they are experiencing now. They look like they are abetting a fugitive from justice,” said Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s very important for them to maintain this position that he is not on Russian territory, which may be technically true but it’s also politically convenient.”

Russian officials couldn’t resist getting involved, Weiss said, because “a big part of the Russian body politic relishes opportunities to embarrass the United States, to show the U.S. double standard that they love to talk about.”

Russia, like other major powers, should be mindful of the “big, generational change” in counterintelligence that whistleblowers like Snowden and alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning represent, Weiss said.

“This is being done enthusiastically, not because they want to commit treason and support some other government but because they oppose the behavior of their own government and want to throw sand in the gears,” Weiss said. “I would think any government has to look at the prospect of someone deliberately trying to undermine it and sow disorder from within. It’s a chilling development for a broader region than the United States.”


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A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.