Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are due to meet in Moscow in early September on the eve of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. However, the scandal involving renegade American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden has threatened to undermine any renewed vow of cooperation between the two former superpowers.
Snowden is petitioning for temporary political asylum in Russia. He is seeking to evade extradition and espionage charges in the U.S. for revealing details about secret U.S. government surveillance programs involving phone and Internet data. While Putin claims neutrality in the Snowden saga, it is clear that the American’s presence in Moscow has been a bonanza for Russian propaganda and an advantage in its intelligence war with Washington. Nonetheless, Putin is also trying to uphold cordial relations with a U.S administration that could provide even more benefits for Russia’s ambitions.
U.S. National Security Leaks
The Obama administration has produced two major intelligence leakers posing as human rights defenders. Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning have become international symbols manipulated by America’s political rivals to undermine U.S. influence and raise the stature of countries such as Russia and China where human rights are disposable.
It is important to understand what intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, actually revealed. The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) Prism program is not an illegal operation that indiscriminately eavesdrops on the private phone calls and internet activities of Americans without a court order. It tracks "metadata" and general information about calling patterns and not the content of individual calls.
The NSA program is legal and has been upheld by several U.S. court rulings that compared it with the activities of the U.S. Postal Service, which reads addresses on envelopes. Americans willingly give up this information to third parties to send letters and complete calls. However, the contents within the envelope, like that of phone calls, are constitutionally protected against search and seizure without a court warrant.
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The U.S. House and Senate congressional intelligence committees approved the NSA surveillance program, while the judicial branch, the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, provides oversight. Since Snowden did not reveal any illegal actions by the NSA in its foreign surveillance program, he will not be protected under whistleblower-protection laws. There are no laws against spying and intelligence gathering overseas.
In a similar recent case, Private Bradley Manning released over 700,000 classified documents from the U.S. Departments of State and Defense to WikiLeaks, the global hacking agency. The release of the overwhelming majority of these documents is also not protected under U.S. whistleblower laws, as there was no illegality on the part of the senders. WikiLeaks is based on computer hacking, cable theft, and the wholesale publishing of private correspondence between American government officials, which is misleadingly called "whistleblowing."
However, far more serious than any revelations about NSA eavesdropping programs, Snowden claims to have stolen top-secret intelligence documents, which he took in four laptops first to China and then to Russia. Whether he has already agreed to share this information with Moscow or it was expertly hacked and decrypted by Chinese and Russian specialists, Snowden has in effect aided and abetted foreign espionage agencies and undermined U.S. national security.
Kremlin Leak Catchers
The Putin regime has benefited in two ways from the Snowden escapade: in terms of its global propaganda war against the U.S. and in its intelligence gathering capabilities. According to Michael Bohm, opinion page editor of the Moscow Times, the Kremlin’s propaganda organs have turned both Snowden and Manning into "heroes of democracy." By claiming that they are victims of U.S. government persecution, Moscow has tried to hide its own systematic hounding of genuine whistleblowers and poses as the global defender of free speech.
Paradoxically, just as Snowden requested asylum in Moscow, Russia's top whistleblower, Alexei Navalny, who regularly reveals the massive corruption of Russian officials, received a five-year jail sentence on trumped up charges of embezzlement. Navalny is also accused by the Kremlin of being the leader of a fifth column financed by Washington to conduct the overthrow of the Putin administration.
Another prominent whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky, died in prison in 2009 where he was denied medical care after exposing a $230 million corruption scheme involving officials at the Russian Interior Ministry and the tax inspectorate. In an unprecedented case, Magnitsky was tried posthumously and found guilty on tax evasion accusations. Instructively, Russian law has now set a precedent for trying Stalin, Lenin, and other former state leaders on charges of genocide and mass repression.
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The Kremlin’s crackdown on Russian NGOs, which need to register as “foreign agents,” is intensifying and contains an intelligence component. Russia’s prosecutor general Yuri Chayka accused the U.S. and other Western powers of financing and directing the activities of foreign agents in Russia, which pretend to be NGOs but whose main aim is to “disclose state secrets.” Snowden’s revelations reinforce Moscow’s accusations that Washington is spying on Russia in order to undermine its national security and provoke “regime change” and state disintegration.
At the same time that Putin has benefited from Snowden, he does not want the defector to undermine his relationship with Obama. Moscow seeks long-term advantages in negotiating with Washington concerning missile defense and arms control, while reinforcing Russia’s pre-eminent role in the “post-Soviet space.” As a result, Putin has demanded that Snowden cease his public anti-U.S. revelations and cooperate privately with Russian intelligence services. A possible cancellation by the White House of the Obama-Putin summit in September would be a major embarrassment to Moscow.
The Intelligence Wars
What exactly Snowden knows and has access to remains a mystery. He reportedly possesses four laptops that contain classified intelligence that Russian services may have either confiscated or scanned. And indeed, it appears that Snowden has not been holed up in the Sheremetyevo airport transit zone, but residing comfortably at an FSB safe house.
Snowden can prove highly beneficial to Russia’s intelligence services by unmasking the operations of one of Washington’s most secretive agencies. He claims to have highly sensitive documents detailing the NSA’s structure and operations. His journalist colleagues assert that he has stolen thousands of documents, which basically constitute "the instruction manual for how the NSA is structured." Such data would allow hostile agencies, including Russia’s, to either evade surveillance or to replicate it.
If Snowden’s intention was simply to reveal domestic data mining, one wonders why he stole so many documents regarding U.S. international intelligence gathering methods? It is unlikely that he was a Russian agent, as he would have disappeared without a trace in the event of imminent exposure. More likely, in his yearnings for publicity, Snowden ventured into deep waters and now finds himself at the mercy of much more predatory operatives.
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American officials believe that classified intelligence taken out of the country by Snowden has been compromised. They must operate on the assumption that Beijing and Moscow have gained access to highly classified intelligence and even military information contained on electronic media in Snowden’s possession. The exact nature of the secret data is the subject of an intensive damage assessment within NSA and other intelligence agencies. Some officials fear that Snowden may have accessed recently created nuclear war plans and other U.S. military contingencies, which will now need to be radically altered.
According to former Russian intelligence operatives who defected to the U.S. in recent years, Muscovite services will undoubtedly debrief Snowden because such a golden opportunity rarely falls into their hands. Snowden may provide valuable information on the technical aspects of intercepting data, especially facts about U.S. electronic espionage toward Russia. This would enable Moscow to modify and improve its own intelligence and counter-intelligence operations. Such debriefing in the presence of technical specialists from the FSB and the military foreign intelligence service will take time; hence, the granting of refugee status to Snowden will prove beneficial for the Kremlin.
In an ironic twist to the Snowden spy story, Moscow can also use his experience to crack down further on free speech inside Russia. The New York Times has revealed how Russian officials are using Snowden’s presence to push for tighter controls over the Internet. Members of the Duma have cited Snowden’s leaks about NSA spying as arguments to compel global Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, to comply more closely with Russian rules on personal data storage. According to Ruslan Gattarov, a member of the Federation Council, transnational Internet companies need to be placed under national controls: “This is the lesson Snowden taught us.”
The documents leaked by Snowden highlight the degree of cooperation between the NSA and high-tech companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. Western information technology companies operating in Russia routinely face demands from law enforcement to reveal user data, and have less recourse than in the U.S. to resist such pressure in the courts. Officials in Moscow are now demanding that foreign companies comply with Russian law on revealing personal data, which require the use of encryption programs licensed by the FSB.
Sergei Zheleznyak, a deputy speaker of the Duma, has proposed legislation requiring e-mail and social networking companies to retain the data of Russian clients on servers inside Russia, where they would be subject to domestic law enforcement search warrants. This would severely undermine Internet freedom and hamper free communication, while exposing critics of the regime and political dissidents to persecution. For Russian-based technology companies, the pressure has been even more intense. The FSB recently ordered Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine, to reveal the identities of people who had made online donations to Navalny. Yandex complied and a number of people subsequently received harassing phone calls from a Kremlin youth group.
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America’s NSA surveillance program, whatever criticisms can be made about its scope, targets, and successes, has been aimed primarily at uncovering terrorist plots to protect American citizens. It did not constitute mass snooping to increase government controls over private lives or to muzzle political dissent. In stark contrast, Russia’s security services seek to monitor political opponents, government critics, and independent activists in order to eliminate them from the public arena.
If Snowden receives refuge in Russia, he would be living in a country with a deteriorating record on human rights, no oversight over government operations, an absence of official transparency, and increasing pressure on the Internet and social media. If he remains serious about his alleged “whistleblowing” mission to reveal official abuses against ordinary citizens he will end up either in a Russian prison or in a Russian graveyard.