If Snowden Wasn't a Spy Before He Went to Russia, He Might Be Now

Brian Fung

In January, the government put a former CIA officer named John Kiriakou behind bars. His crime? Leaking classified information to a reporter. Sounds suspiciously similar to another American in the news who's been accused of espionage—but that's not what makes him relevant here.

Before being jailed, Kiriakou published a memoir called The Reluctant Spy. And while the book deals with Kiriakou's experiences at the agency, the title might actually be a more accurate description of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Whether Snowden is a traitor, or guilty of espionage, or something worse, has become a parlor game of sorts. But the Espionage Act makes room for only so many definitions of spying.

That Snowden gave his files to a journalist gives him some credibility as a whistleblower. But that credibility would be shot if it turned out that his information fell into the hands of a foreign government—like those of the countries he fled to.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who's been helping Snowden, insists that the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor was never debriefed by Russian security officials. But the Kremlin doesn't need to interview Snowden to scrape all his files, as spy novelist and New York Times writer Alex Berenson points out:

Mr. Snowden has put himself in a terrible spot. Moscow will surely protect him for as long as it feels like irritating Washington. But by the time the Russians are finished sifting through his laptops, he’ll be their spy, whether or not he meant to be. Beijing may have already pulled the same trick; some intelligence officers believe that Chinese spy agencies copied Mr. Snowden’s hard drives during his Hong Kong stay.

Snowden may not have set out to spy for another country. But unless he's kept his files on his person this whole time, day and night, it may not matter whether we think he deserves the label.