Snowden Is More Toxic Now Than He Was in 2013

Leonid Bershidsky

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The interviews that National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden has been giving before Tuesday’s launch of his memoir, “Permanent Record,” show that he’d rather be granted asylum in France or Germany than in Russia, where he’s been living for the last six years. It’s easy to see why — and also why it’s not going to happen. 

Snowden told France Inter radio that he’d applied for asylum in France back in 2013 and that he’d still like President Emmanuel Macron to grant it. “The saddest thing is that the only place where an American whistle-blower can speak isn’t in Europe, but here,” Snowden said, speaking from Russia. 

To the German daily Die Welt, Snowden said that he understood why Germany wouldn’t take him in 2013. “Obama was responsible for this injustice; he would have taken it personally if Germany had granted me asylum back then,” he said. “But from a long-term point of view, Germany and Europe would have helped the U.S. if I’d received political asylum.”

To keep the hope alive that a Western country would accept him someday, Snowden says he has kept intentionally aloof in Russia. “I try to keep a distance between myself and Russian society, and this is completely intentional,” he told the German weekly Der Spiegel. Snowden also insists that the only time he was approached by an officer of the FSB, the Russian domestic intelligence service, he cut the meeting short to avoid the emergence of an edited, damaging recording. 

“I think what explains the fact that the Russian government didn't hang me upside down by my ankles and beat me with a shock prod until secrets came out was because everyone in the world was paying attention to it,” Snowden told Der Spiegel. “And they didn't know what to do.”

This could have been a believable claim in 2013. President Vladimir Putin’s regime was still experimenting with propaganda directed at the West. The Russia Today TV and internet channel, initially meant as a window on Russia for the rest of the world, had only turned into a full-fledged information-war weapon some three years before. Russia-based troll farm operators were still trying to work out effective ways of abusing the social networks. Putin could have been happy enough to show off Snowden as proof that true freedom of speech existed in Russia, not in the U.S. (Putin has denied on many occasions that Russian intelligence has debriefed Snowden). Snowden describes himself, sarcastically, as the “one bright spot on their human rights record” and asked, rhetorically, “Why would they give that up?”

Given how aware he is of his supposed propaganda value, I can see why he sometimes directly echoes the Kremlin line, as in the Spiegel interview:

Russia is responsible for a lot of negative activity in the world, you can say that right and fairly. Did Russia interfere with elections? Almost certainly. But does the United States interfere in elections? Of course. They've been doing it for the last 50 years.

I doubt, however, that this kind of thing buys him a trouble-free existence in Russia these days, even if it did in 2013.

The Russian propaganda machine has become more cynically accomplished, and Snowden’s value to it has all but expired. His attempts to distance himself from the Putin regime have turned him into more of a liability than an asset for the Kremlin.

During Snowden’s stay in Russia, the country has proceeded at a brisk pace down the zero-privacy path that Snowden deplores. It has adopted tough laws demanding that telecommunications and internet services collect, store and share with the government oodles of private information, including the content of communications. Moscow has become one of the world’s most surveilled cities with 11.7 cameras per 1,000 people (in Europe, only London is ahead), and this year, it’s launching a major citywide face-recognition project.

Earlier this month, blogger Vladislav Sinitsa was sentenced to five years in prison for suggesting online that the children of riot cops who cruelly beat up protesters should be targeted by way of retaliation; he wasn’t accused of plotting anything of the kind in the real world, and a tweet was his only crime.

The Russian leadership is convinced that it’s engaged in an information war with the U.S., and it’s actively preparing for the eventuality that the U.S. might shut off its internet segment from the rest of the global computer network.

In a country like this, it’s hard to imagine that a former U.S. spy can somehow live a normal life unmolested by the intelligence services. Snowden rents a Moscow apartment, goes out regularly with his wife (whom he married in Moscow), somehow makes enough money for a reasonably comfortable existence. Even if the FSB really didn’t make a second approach after a first abortive meeting in 2013, I don’t see what could have kept it away afterward. Even if, for some reason, it has given up on seeking consultations about the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency, whose spy tools have been stolen in recent years and used by Russian intelligence services, I find it unimaginable that the Russian intelligence community isn’t closely monitoring Snowden’s activities. 

I believe in the purity of Snowden’s motives. But I don’t believe in Putin’s enduring respect for them, much less in the FSB’s ability to ignore someone like Snowden on its home turf.

European countries should have acted in 2013, granting Snowden asylum when he asked for it. Perhaps (although it’s still unlikely) it would have done so had Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, been president. But now, after six years of mysteriously surviving Russia’s steadily growing siege mentality, Snowden is more toxic to any potential country of refuge than he was six years ago.

Snowden says that though he’d rather be elsewhere, he’s making plans based on being stuck in Russia for the foreseeable future. He’s right, and unfortunately, such a future is especially risky if he’s really refusing to cooperate with the Russian spy services.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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