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How NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden May Have Botched His Getaway

Michael Kelley
plane russia


The sun rises above Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport June 27, 2013.

Edward Snowden is a legitimate whistleblower — he published the first concrete evidence of the NSA's domestic surveillance apparatus, corroborating claims made by previous whistleblowers and raising serious questions about the constitutionality of the NSA running a widespread, warrantless domestic dragnet with weak oversight.

But there is a growing body of evidence that the 30-year-old ex-Booz Allen employee is now in a position to unintentionally leak more highly valuable U.S. national security intel than he meant to.

The former CIA technician , stuck in the transit zone  of a Moscow airport,  is now in the jurisdiction of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), i.e., the post-Soviet successor of the KGB. Before that he spent a month in China.

On May 20 Snowden arrived in Hong Kong from Hawaii with "four laptop computers that enable him to gain access to some of the US government's most highly-classified secrets."

On June 1 he met with journalists, including Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, and began providing them with classified documents. On June 9 he identified himself, which placed a bullseye on his back for U.S., Chinese, and Russian intelligence to see.

“He’s a kid, I really think he’s a kid, I think he never anticipated this would be such a big matter in Hong Kong,” Albert Ho, Snowden's Hong Kong-based lawyer, told The New York Times.

The next day he checked out of his hotel and began providing the South China Morning Post with "documents" and details of NSA hacking civilian targets in Hong Kong and mainland China.

On June 23 he flew to Moscow. A t that point Snowden had been in China,  carrying four laptops with access to troves of highly classified data belonging to  the world's largest spy agency , for more than a month.

Russ Tice, the original NSA whistleblower who recently claimed that the NSA wiretapped then-Senator Barack Obama in 2004, found it hard to believe that Snowden would carry physical data on him — because of how dumb that would be.

"It would be foolish," Tice told Business Insider. "If he went out to lunch, the Chinese authorities would be searching his hotel room … to try to see if he had any more physical goodies on the NSA. And if he did, he certainly would not have left Hong Kong with that information without the Hong Kong authorities making sure they got it from him."

To those who think Snowden held on to his computers during his stay — there are no indications to the contrary — the implications are simple.

“That stuff is gone,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia told The Washington Post. “I guarantee the Chinese intelligence service got their hands on that right away. If they imaged the hard drives and then returned them to him, well, then the Russians have that stuff now.”

In any case, Russia would certainly find value in access to Snowden. A  radio host from Radio Echo of Moscow described what she saw in the airport's transit zone on the day of Snowden's arrival:

"I saw about 20 Russian officials, supposedly FSB agents in suits, crowding around somebody in a restricted area of the airport," Bychkova  told Anna Nemtsova of Foreign Policy.  "The Kremlin pretends they have nothing to do with him being stuck in Moscow, but in reality they're all over him."  


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Earlier this week Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, said that he would "prefer not to deal with this issue at all. It's like shearing a pig — too much squeaking, too little wool."

Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin doubts that:

“The special services understand that this person knows a lot and that it would be useful to talk to him. Snowden is not a human rights defender, and in fact there is something to shear from him.”

WikiLeaks, which sent founder Julian Assange's closest advisor to travel with Snowden, denied that Snowden is in contact with the FSB:

Mr. Snowden is not being 'de briefed' by the FSB. He is well and WikiLeaks' Harrison is escorting him at all times. http://t.co/Y1EBv5GCUs

— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 26, 2013

Putin also said that Snowden is a "free person" who can leave Russia whenever he wants — but that doesn't seem to be the case either.

Here's what  a source reportedly in contact with Snowden  told Interfax:

“Snowden’s American passport is void and he is not in possession of any other document with which he can prove his identity. For this reason, he has to stay in Sheremetyevo’s transit zone and cannot leave Russia, cannot buy a ticket.” 

As for Snowden's attempt to obtain political asylum and travel to Ecuador, Univision has published a document apparently granting Snowden safe passage while the country's foreign minister denies that such a document exists.

The document, which appears to be from General Consul of Ecuador in London, states that it was provided "to allow the bearer to travel to the territory of Ecuador for the purpose of political asylum."

It adds a request "to the relevant authorities of the transit countries to give the appropriate help, so that" Snowden can reach Ecuador. However, there is no signature.

Furthermore, Putin doesn't have to grant that request (especially when Snowden has a voided passport), just like he doesn't have to grant President Obama's request that Snowden be returned to the U.S.

Perhaps that's why WikiLeaks said that Snowden could be stuck in Russia "permanently."

In hindsight, Snowden's path around the world may be the worst one possible for an American physically and mentally carrying U.S. national security secrets with the intention of selectively leaking them.

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