Will Putin Ever Let Snowden Leave?

The dirty secret is that Russia doesn't care about Edward anymore. It's all about luring the next turncoat.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Frank Deford, the venerable American sportswriter, once famously wrote that "professional wrestling is clean and everything else in the world is fixed." Deford should perhaps be considered a sharp observer of U.S. foreign policy as well, since the line aptly describes the wrestling match between Moscow and Washington over National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s flight to Russia.

While Snowden’s odyssey from Hawaii to Hong Kong to Moscow is bizarre enough in its own right, it pales in comparison to the kabuki dance between the two superpowers over his fate. First there was the straight-faced insistence from Washington that Snowden is an accused felon and thus must be returned to face American justice. Attorney General Eric Holder even gave his assurances that Snowden will not face the death penalty.

On the Russian side, after equally straight-faced bobbing and weaving on whether Snowden was even on Russian soil, or would be granted asylum, President Vladimir Putin declared Snowden may remain in Russia for awhile, provided he "stop his work aimed at harming our American partners." After another month of exaggerated legal hammerlocks, Snowden’s Russian attorney finally sprang him from airport limbo, popped him into a waiting cab, and disappeared him into his new Mother Russia.

It’s probably safe to say now that most of this back and forth was purely for public consumption.

American intelligence must have known and advised the White House, the Justice Department, and the Congress that the Russians would ultimately provide Snowden some form of safe harbor. Handing him back to the United States was never a serious option. Russian intelligence, and that would include former KGB officer and now President Putin, understands the chilling effect turning Snowden back would have on whatever prospective U.S. turncoat might be waiting in the wings, ready to hand over American secrets to Moscow’s spymasters. And yes, let us assume these prospective turncoats are out there.

In the long history of the spy game between these two adversaries, the intelligence volunteer — the willing turncoat — motivated by money, revenge, lust, or simply boredom has always been the central character. And the Russian and U.S. intelligence services have built their crafts around the handling of the next volunteer, the next intelligence goldmine, whether it is an Aldrich Ames or a Robert Hanssen crossing over from our side, or an Adolf Tolkachev coming to us from theirs.

Over the course of the Cold War the only case of a defector being turned back by the Americans against his will involved a lowly Soviet ship-jumper of absolutely no intelligence value, a 25-year-old Ukrainian merchant seaman named Miroslav Medvid, who in 1985 twice jumped from the Soviet grain ship, Marshal Konev, into the Mississippi River at New Orleans trying to defect. Twice, he was turned back by U.S. immigration authorities until irate members of Congress, led by Sen. Jesse Helms, demanded that the ship be held in port until the issue was resolved. Ukrainian-American groups joined the fray, and President Ronald Reagan’s upcoming summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev seemed threatened by the flap. In the end, Medvid was forcibly returned to the USSR, and Reagan had his summit with Gorbachev in Geneva a few weeks later. But a subsequent congressional investigations over the next two years concluded that the United States had violated the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights by turning him in. (There was something close to a happy ending, however. Medvid, after being hauled back to Ukraine in chains, became an Eastern Orthodox priest, and later even visited the United States legally.)

The lesson here is that neither the United States nor Russia will turn back intelligence defectors, legitimate fugitives, or wandering whistleblowers, each of whom are by definition "felons" once they end up on our respective shores. Doing so would be about as likely as the Americans and the Russians ceasing to run clandestine intelligence operations on each other’s soil. There may be more sound and fury over the Snowden affair, but in a real world there should be little effect on U.S.-Russian relations. The administration could, indeed, draw another of its red lines and cancel the summit this fall, but that would be nothing more than extending the theater of the Snowden affair. Whether there will be profound changes in how NSA conducts its business remains an open question.

But Snowden’s life has changed forever. One doubts that he will return to face the charges against him. That outcome is far too certain — just look at Bradley Manning. And clever as he might be with computers, Snowden will probably not find any meaningful opportunity for a normal life in Russia. Instead he will join a line of pathetic Western intelligence personalities who simply faded into the Russian woodwork as footnotes to history. Of the Americans who blazed the trail Snowden has followed, the most recent that we know of was Edward Lee Howard, a revenge-seeking CIA officer who defected to the Soviet Union in 1985, after betraying a number of American assets in the USSR. Howard reportedly died in a drunken fall at his dacha in 2002, though the novelist in me has always wondered whether he might have gone through some extreme makeover courtesy of the KGB and might now be a tall beach blond tending bar at Carlos and Charlie’s in Aruba.

The Russians will tire of Snowden soon enough. His intelligence value is limited to whatever he has on those laptops, and whatever a 30-year-old contractor with a few months on the job might know that the Russians don’t already know. And much of that is now public anyway. Soon enough his future choices will be between the Rosetta Stone language discs or the Stolichnaya bottle on his coffee table.

The real scandal here is how Snowden was able to steal terabytes of data from the NSA in the first place. One should have no doubts that the Russians have drained the laptops; nor should we have any doubts that the Chinese also copied the data on his computers.

The end of the match, then, is something of a tie between the U.S. and Russia, and a win for China, as usual, and the Deford Dictum applies.

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