Edward Jay Epstein is my favorite investigative journalist and the author of several of my favorite books including, most recently, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft. Ed has forwarded his thoughts on Snowden’s becoming a Russian citizen. Ed writes:
Edward Snowden, the former civilian contractor at the super-secret National Security Agency, has now joined the group of secret-stealers including infamous British Cold War spies Harold Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, to whom the Kremlin has awarded full citizenship. Snowden, who defected to Russia in June 2013, received his citizenship from Vladimir Putin on September 26, 2022, possibly making him eligible for military service in Ukraine if Putin further expands his mobilization.
What Snowden did to earn this distinction is still a matter of dispute in the universe of the media, but the December 2016 report report of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which was unanimously agreed upon by all the Democrats and Republicans on it, concluded that Snowden removed from the NSA digital copies of no fewer than 1.5 million files. This haul included 900,000 Department of Defense documents concerning, among other things, the then newly created joint Cyber Command.
Other stolen files contained documents from GCHQ — the British signal intelligence service — to which Snowden had access. Then NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett, who also headed the NSA’s damage assessment, stated just one of these NSA file, a 31,000-page database, reveals the gaps in our knowledge of Russia, thus providing our adversaries with a “roadmap of what we know, what we don’t know, and gives them—implicitly—a way to protect their information from the U.S. intelligence community’s view.”
What Snowden did with these files remains unknown. But U.S. intelligence had to act on the assumption that all the sources and methods in the classified material might be compromised. The Pentagon thus assigned hundreds of intelligence officers, in round-the-clock shifts, to go through each of the 1.5 million files to identify all the compromised sources and methods they contained and shut them down even though it meant seriously reducing the capabilities of the NSA, the Cyber Command, the British GCHQ, and other allied intelligence services to see inside Russia and China. According to former NSA director Michael McConnell, repairing the damage might take many “decades.”
Putin had become first aware of Snowden soon after Snowden took the trove of NSA’s secrets to Hong Kong in 2013, as he revealed in a televised press conference on September 2, 2013. After saying “I am going to tell you something I have never said before,” Putin explained, “Snowden first went to Hong Kong and got in touch with our diplomatic representatives.” At that time, Putin continued, “I was informed that there was such a man, agent of special services.”
Although this revelation contradicts Snowden’s denials that he had no contacts with the Russians before arriving in Moscow, Putin did not set forth what Snowden told these “diplomatic representatives.” But whatever Snowden said, it was evidently enough to persuade Putin to authorize Snowden’s trip to Moscow and offer him sanctuary from U.S. efforts to arrest him on the charge of violating its espionage laws.
Even though Snowden has consistently denied sharing any information with Moscow, the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee came to a different conclusion. According to its December 2016 report, he remained in contact with the Russian intelligence services for at least three years after he arrived in Moscow. Mike Rogers, then the committee’s chair, confirmed this finding to me.
This raises the question of what the American defector has been doing in Moscow for the past eight-and-one-half years. When I met in 2015 with Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s Moscow lawyer, Kucherena said that Snowden had been employed by a Moscow cyber security enterprise. I asked the name of the firm but Kucherena said he could not reveal it because of lawyer-client privilege. Nor has Snowden ever publicly revealed the occupation through which he earns his living and supports his wife and child in Russia.
He does, however, have skills and knowledge, which he freely discusses with journalists. For example, he told the editor of the Guardian in Moscow in 2014, “If I were providing information that I know, that’s in my head, to some foreign government, the US intelligence community would . . . see sources go dark that were previously productive.” That sort of knowledge, as well as the skill set by which he acquired it, could be of considerable value in Russia. Although Snowden’s activities in Moscow since 2013 have never been fully disclosed, Putin evidently appreciated them enough them enough to award Snowden citizenship during his disastrous war in Ukraine.
What is less of a mystery is Snowden’s choices. He chose to betray the American intelligence service for whom he worked by taking its secrets. He chose to accept the protection of the Putin regime to avoid prosecution in the U.S. He chose to accept Putin’s gift of Russian citizenship. In short, in his moral vacuity, he chose sides by throwing in not with the critics of liberal democracy but with its sworn enemies.