Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, who co-wrote the definitive books on the post-Soviet security services and the history of the Russian internet, has kept tabs on National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s ongoing exile.
“He is a sort of ghost,” Soldatov told a recent Lawfare podcast. “It looks like he’s there, but since he’s banned from talking to Russian journalists or Moscow-based foreign journalists, … he speaks only to journalists coming specifically to interview him, so they are all approved [by the Russian government] in advance. So he is almost nowhere.”
Snowden arrived in Moscow on June 23, 2013, after stealing an estimated 1.5 million classified U.S. documents, providing some to journalists, traveling to Hong Kong and identifying himself.
At some point, Snowden met with Russian officials in Hong Kong before flying to Moscow accompanied by WikiLeaks adviser Sarah Harrison. Snowden and Harrison were escorted off the plane apart from the other passengers.
Snowden subsequently spent nearly 40 days in or near Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport before Russia granted him asylum on Aug. 1, 2013. The 34-year-old American has lived in an undisclosed location with a security detail ever since.
“The first step is to get Snowden to Moscow,” Soldatov explained in early 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.”
While Snowden’s day-to-day life in exile is largely shrouded in mystery, there are a few indications of how he spends his time.
‘Nobody has seen him’
“Nobody can talk to him, nobody has seen him,” Soldatov told Brookings Institution fellow Alina Polyakova on the podcast. “And it looks like a kind of strategy to be seen just out of the United States. … ‘I’m not in Russia, specifically, I’m just somewhere.'”
In 2014, Snowden began speaking directly to audiences over video chat (in addition to occasional interviews). In November 2015, he told a crowd in Washington, D.C.: “People say I live in Russia, but that’s actually a little bit of a misunderstanding. I live on the internet. And that’s where I spend all of my time.”
The following month, he proclaimed: “I’m not in Russia. I’m not on the Internet. I’m in Utah.”
Snowden has made good money on the speaking circuit, including paid gigs for U.S. universities, over the last few years. While Snowden has appeared at fewer events in 2017, his statements are still relevant: He downplayed Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to a German audience in March and compared leaked NSA hacking tools to stolen Tomahawk missiles at an event near the White House in May.
Snowden’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, said in August that the American doesn’t give interviews to Russian journalists because “Edward has a strong position on the issue, he does not grant interviews to anybody anywhere; the Russian media is no exception.”
These days the de facto expat mostly communicates to the public through Twitter.
Journalists writing up the VEP plan today: most important revelation was enormous loophole permitting digital arms brokers to exempt (via routine NDAs used when proliferating bugs to >1 buyer) critical flaws in US infrastructure from disclosure no matter the cost to our security.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) November 15, 2017
‘He is in a very strange situation’
Soldatov noted that while Snowden has criticized new Russian internet laws, the Kremlin has exploited his revelations to introduce increasingly repressive internet laws.
“The most sensitive thing about him in Russia is how his revelations were used and exploited by the Russian government promoting some crazy ideas about offensives on internet freedoms,” Soldatov said. “For example, we got this data localization law forcing global platforms to move their servers into Russia on the pretext of protecting Russian personal data from, say, NSA spying. So they’ve obviously exploited Snowden revelations.”
Furthermore, Soldatov noted, Snowden has not acknowledged that his revelations are being used by the Russian government to further oppress domestic internet users.
“The problem is that Snowden never tried to comment on … how his revelations were used by the Russian authorities,” Soldatov said. “So he is in a very strange situation, in a kind of limbo: He’s not part of the Russian political landscape, he’s still there, and nobody knows what might happen to him.”
‘He still lives and works in Russia’
Much of what we know about Snowden’s life in Russia has come from Kucherena.
“He’s planning to arrange his life here. He plans to get a job,” Kucherena, who is close to Putin’s government, announced in July 2013. “And, I think, that all his further decisions will be made considering the situation he found himself in.”
Kucherena mentioned Snowden’s job multiple times over the years.
“Edward Snowden will start working at a big Russian company on Friday, Nov. 1,” Kucherena said on Oct. 31, 2013. “His job will be to support and develop a major Russian website.”
In February 2015, Kucherena told reporters that Snowden “has long worked for a Russian company. He is a unique specialist, the company won’t let him go.” The lawyer noted that Snowden’s salary allowed him to live a comfortable life.
“Today he has now — if one can put it like this — settled in,” Kucherena said on June 23, 2015, the two-year anniversary of Snowden’s arrival in Moscow. “He is working in an IT company. We are not revealing this information, and it is understandable on what grounds. So today, I thank God, everything is fine. He is working. He is satisfied by the work he is doing.”
Asked in April 2017 if the administration of President Trump had reached out to Snowden, Kucherena told Tass that “no one tried to contact him. … Nothing has changed actually, he still lives and works in Russia.”
Snowden’s primary American lawyer, Ben Wizner, has told journalists that Snowden does not have a job in Russia (besides paid speaking appearances via video chat). Wizner did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the topic, including an email on Saturday morning.
‘He could get Russian citizenship’
Ever since Snowden publicly asked the country for asylum on July 12, 2013, Kucherena has signaled that Snowden could receive Russian citizenship
“In line with the law, he may become a citizen of Russia, but this can happen in some time,” Kucherena said after attending the restricted event. “Suppose that he could enjoy … a kind of residence permit, then he could get Russian citizenship in five years.”
The Kremlin-linked lawyer has reiterated over the years that Snowden may be eligible for citizenship, most recently after Russia renewed Snowden’s residence permit in early 2017.
“Essentially, he now has every reason to apply for [Russian] citizenship in the future, in a while, as the law [states] that one needs to spend no less than 5 years on the territory of Russia [to be granted citizenship],” Kucherena said in January, as reported by RT.
“He has now lived in Russia for almost four years, has not violated any laws, and there are no [legal] claims against him — this is one of the reasons his residence permit was extended.”
Soldatov, who recently updated his new book to include Russian meddling in the U.S. election, noted that Snowden hasn’t been used directly by Russian propaganda through appearances on RT or Sputnik.
Nevertheless, Soldatov concluded, the former NSA contractor’s life in Russia is largely dictated by the FSB, Russia’s state security organization.
“He’s trapped in this situation,” he said. “And given the fact that [he] lives surrounded by these people with almost no option to get out, well, it’s tough.”
Here is the podcast featuring Soldatov. The discussion of Snowden starts at around 43:30.
Follow Michael B. Kelley on Twitter @MichaelBKelley.