Stuck in the transit lounge of Sheremyetevo Airport for the past two weeks, a studious-looking American has single-handedly thrown East-West relations into turmoil, sown deep suspicion between Washington and its European allies and threatens to expose further secrets to add to one of the biggest intelligence scandals for years.
Edward Snowden, a former employee of the National Security Agency, America's centre for gathering electronic intelligence, is now a fugitive from American justice and is seeking asylum in any other country that will accept him. His crime was to leak details of a vast electronic eavesdropping operation conducted by US intelligence; in particular he revealed that for almost three years Washington has been covertly collecting information on billions of telephone calls and electronic communications made not only in the US but also by government agencies and ordinary citizens in many of America's closest allies, including France, Belgium and especially Germany, as well as countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and China.
His revelations have caused a furore in Europe, where he is being hailed by some human rights campaigners as a hero. But in America he is officially considered a traitor and a man who has put at risk a huge amount of US intelligence as well as hindering the fight against terrorism. The US justice system is determined to prosecute him, and lawyers say he could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Snowden insists, however, that he revealed the NSA operations because they had run out of control, and went far beyond authorised intelligence activity. He says he acted as a "whistleblower", claiming immunity under recent US laws passed to protect anyone who revealed wrongdoing.
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His claims, revealed in newspapers in Britain and Germany, have shocked America's allies. All governments accept that security agencies conduct covert operations. But European ministers and officials were furious to discover that not only had their private communications been monitored, but that the US had been spying on organisations such as NATO and the European Union, and had even installed secret monitoring devices in the offices of the EU in Washington and at the UN in New York. And many of the operations appear to have been authorised not as part of the fight against terrorism but in order for the US to collect commercially sensitive information and to find out what their allies were planning to do at international negotiations.
Both France and Germany have called for an explanation. Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, said that these acts, if confirmed, "would be completely unacceptable". Sabine Leuteusser-Schnarrenberger, the German Justice Minister, said the US actions were reminiscent of the actions of enemies during the cold war, and added: "It is beyond imagination that our friends in the US view Europeans as the enemy".
Significantly, Britain and other English-speaking allies of the US such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have not been the target of NSA snooping. The suspicion has arisen that indeed Britain was fully aware of such operations, and – given the close intelligence relations between British and American intelligence services – has actively helped them.
When the story first broke at the beginning of the month, angry Europeans threatened to break off talks with the US on an important new round of free trade negotiations, and predicted a severe impact on US-European relations. What particularly astonished them was the scale of the monitoring: Snowden claimed that the clandestine operations began in September 2010 and that the US routinely bugs up to half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages each month in Germany alone. On an average day, the NSA monitors about 15 million German phone connections and 10 million datasets, rising on a busy day to 60 million phone connections.
But over the past week, the anger of European governments appears to have died down – at least in public. Partly this is because President Obama moved swiftly to reassure his allies that none of the operations involved reading the contents of any communication, but merely logged the traffic and the recipients of messages. Partly also it is because it because clear that other Western allies also engage in similar electronic monitoring – though on a smaller scale – and that intelligence agents in Germany may have been fully aware of what the US was doing and had even helped the NSA.
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Americans themselves have been surprised at the scale of the surveillance and many have wondered what possible use the Obama Administration could make of so many billions of intercepts. But US officials have defended the actions as essential in tracking possible communications between terrorists and in defending the West from plots and possible new attacks.
The focus has now switched to the fate of Snowden himself. He was in Hong Kong when he revealed what his former employers had been doing, and flew to Moscow in the hope that he could seek asylum in Latin America. Ecuador, which is already sheltering Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, in its London embassy, said it was ready to accept Snowden – provided he could make his way there. But this is now looking increasingly difficult.
At first, it was thought that Russian intelligence was debriefing him before allowing him to fly on to Cuba. But as US anger mounted, President Putin declared that Snowden, who has no Russian visa, had never left Moscow airport transit lounge, and had not been questioned by any Russian intelligence officer. It also turned out that the US had promptly cancelled his US passport, making it impossible for him to travel anywhere on a normal airline. Ecuador then came under strong pressure from Washington to withdraw its offer, and its president, Rafael Correa, said the promise of safe passage had been given to the fugitive in error. Snowden then appealed to 21 countries for asylum, including Russia itself. But Putin, clearly unwilling to risk a big confrontation with Washington, said this would be granted only if Snowden stopped revealing any more information – a condition that he has refused.
Washington then raised the pressure on its European allies. When it was suspected that Eva Morales, the strongly anti-US president of Bolivia, was going to allow Snowden to travel with him on his return flight after an official visit to Moscow, several Western countries suddenly closed their airspace to his plane. He was forced to make an unscheduled overnight stop in Vienna and then fly a circuitous route back home, avoiding French and Portuguese airspace. The Bolivians were furious – and it turned out that Snowden was in any case still in Moscow.
The options have begun to fade for Snowden. Moscow may also lose patience with its unwanted guest, as US officials are now hinting that if he remains at Sheremetyevo, Obama will refuse to attend the forthcoming G20 summit in St Petersburg – an event of great prestige to Putin.
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Obama has promised to investigate the claims that the NSA has gone too far in its monitoring operations. The question of what is legitimate surveillance is now being hotly debated in the US and among its allies. Experienced diplomats have accused privacy campaigners of overreacting. Spies always spy, they insist – that is their job. And there is no evidence that the Americans have used the operations to steal commercial secrets or undermine the security of their allies. In the US itself, most Americans remain unconcerned by the row, believing that anything likely to deter terrorist plotting is legitimate.
The affair has nevertheless been intensely embarrassing for Washington. And this appears to be the real reason for the fury with Snowden. One by one, countries have turned down his asylum requests. His temporary stay in Russia may last for a while – though perhaps not as long as the stay of Mehran Nasseri, an Iranian refugee, who lived in the departure lounge of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for 18 years. So far, the Russians have allowed him to remain. But they know that should they be seen to be aiding Snowden, US anger will rise swiftly and Moscow could be subject to extraordinary US pressure. Snowden may find that his whistle blowing has come at a very heavy cost.