In the three years since Edward Snowden landed in Moscow, his relationship with his hosts has been a source of much speculation and controversy. The American IT contractor, who worked for the CIA and NSA until he fled Hawaii with more than a million purloined secret files, has not left Russia since he arrived at Sheremetyevo airport on 23 June 2013, on a flight from Hong Kong.
Snowden landed in Moscow with the permission of the Russian government, whose representatives he met during his sojourn in Hong Kong that lasted more than three weeks. He became so friendly with them that he actually celebrated his 30th birthday at the Russian consulate!
On the run from prosecution in the USA, Snowden received asylum from Vladimir Putin. Although Snowden recently indicated he would like a pardon from President Barack Obama before he leaves office in January, there’s no indication that will happen. The White House only a month ago explained that it considers Snowden to be a criminal, so any pardon seems like a fantasy.
Then there is the messy question of Snowden’s ties with the Kremlin. To anybody acquainted with the world of espionage, particularly when it involves Russians, Snowden is a defector and his collaboration with Moscow’s security agencies is a sure thing – as I explained recently.
Experts on the Kremlin’s powerful intelligence apparatus, what Russians call the “special services,” have no doubt that collaboration is a matter of simple quid pro quo. Any Western intelligence official who receives sanctuary in Russia will share what he knows with his hosts: there is no choice in the matter.
Snowden and his representatives have insisted that he is no collaborator. The official story is that Snowden arrived in Moscow with none of the classified documents he stole from NSA, and he refused to share secrets with Russian intelligence. According to Wikileaks, which told Snowden to flee to Moscow, the defector was approached by Russian spies after his arrival in their country, but refused to spill secrets.
Since Wikileaks itself is now more or less openly a front for the Kremlin, with its head Julian Assange mouthing pro-Putin propaganda with increasing frequency, there’s no reason to take its claims about Snowden seriously – particularly given Assange’s admitted role in getting the American to Moscow in the first place.
Nobody I know in Western intelligence circles believes any of these claims of Snowden’s innocence. If he has not collaborated with Russia’s special services, he would be the very first defector since 1917 not to do so. There are no indications that Vladimir Putin, who publicly called Snowden a “strange guy” and is not known for giving anything away for free, is that charitable.
Snowden’s relationship with Russian intelligence was in the public eye recently when the issue arose during the German parliament’s special investigative commission on NSA. Last month, Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of German domestic intelligence, created a stir when he explained that, in reality, Snowden is very likely a Russian agent.
Gerhard Schindler, the head of German foreign intelligence, went further, explaining that Snowden is “a traitor” and “He has become a plaything of the FSB – which is anything but good” – the FSB being the Federal Security Service, Russia’s powerful and unsavory domestic intelligence agency.
Although these statements should not be controversial, since Snowden has been in Russia for three years and shows no signs of leaving Putin’s protection, his defenders objected to such commonsense pronouncements by Germany’s security leadership. However, Snowden did himself no favors by suddenly being able to tweet in fluent German – a language he seems to have learned overnight – which bolstered the case that he is the plaything of the FSB.
Now, the Kremlin has settled the issue once and for all by stating that Edward Snowden is indeed their man. In a remarkable interview this week, Franz Klintsevich, a senior Russian security official, explained the case matter-of-factly:
“Let’s be frank. Snowden did share intelligence. This is what security services do. If there’s a possibility to get information, they will get it.”
With this, Klintsevich simply said what all intelligence professionals already knew – that Snowden is a collaborator with the FSB. That he really had no choice in the matter once he set foot in Russia does not change the facts.
Klintsevich is no idle speculator. He is a senator who has served in the State Duma for nearly a decade. More importantly, he is the deputy chair of the senate’s defense and security committee, which oversees the special services. The 59-year-old Klintsevich thus has access to many state secrets – for instance regarding the Snowden case.
He is also a retired Russian army colonel, having served 22 years in the elite Airborne Forces (VDV). Klintsevich saw action in Afghanistan in the 1980s with the VDV and, based on a careful reading of his biography, appears to have served with GRU, that is military intelligence (his work in “special propaganda” in Afghanistan and his 1991 graduation from the Lenin Military-Political Academy are indications of his GRU affiliation).
Klintsevich is not a well-known figure outside Russia – he appeared in the Western press briefly in 2012 with his short-lived idea to buy Hitler’s birth house in Braunau, in order to destroy it – but he is a well-connected member of the Kremlin’s ruling elite. Given his senate committee position and his GRU past, there is no doubt that Klintsevich is considered nash (“ours”) by Russia’s special services.
His statement outing Snowden’s relationship with the Kremlin therefore cannot be an accident or a slip of the tongue. For whatever reason, Putin has decided to out Snowden as the collaborator that he actually is – and has been for three years already.
One reason for this may be Snowden’s recent tepid criticism via Twitter of Russia’s draconian new laws on domestic surveillance – which vastly exceed any of the activities of the Western democracies that Snowden has so strongly criticized from his FSB hideaway. Indeed, his hosts finally allowing their American collaborator to tweet negatively about Russia – many had noted Snowden’s silence on FSB repression and worse – may be a sign that the defector has outlived his usefulness.
In truth, Snowden was never all that well informed about American intelligence. Contrary to the myths that he and his mouthpieces have propagated, he was no more than an IT systems administrator. Snowden was never any sort of bona fide spy. There are no indications he really understands most of what he stole from NSA.
The FSB therefore milked Snowden of any valuable information rather quickly. He likely had little light to shed on the million-plus secret files he stole. Instead, his value to Moscow has been as a key player in Kremlin propaganda designed to discredit the Western intelligence alliance.
In that role, Snowden has done a great deal of damage to the West. But he was never a “mole” for Moscow inside NSA. In reality, the Snowden Operation is probably a cover to deflect attention from the one or more actual Russian moles who have been lurking inside NSA for years, undetected.
Based on the cases of previous Western intelligence defectors to Moscow, Edward Snowden faces an unhappy future. Whatever happens to him is up to his hosts, who control all aspects of any defector’s life. There no longer can be any honest debate about his relationship with the Kremlin, which has settled the matter once and for all. Putin and his special services consider Snowden to be nash – there is no question about that now.