- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
ASPEN, Colo. — The former U.S. ambassador to Russia says Edward Snowden’s continuing political asylum in Moscow has been an intelligence and public relations boon to President Vladimir Putin.
Michael McFaul, who left Moscow in February, told a large crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival here that Snowden "knows things that are useful to Russian intelligence" about the inner workings of U.S. eavesdropping and surveillance. While the former diplomat said that he had no particular information that Snowden, an ex-contractor for the National Security Agency, was sharing classified information with his Russian hosts, McFaul said the Russians were probably doing everything they could to glean secrets from Snowden. If a Russian intelligence operative with Snowden’s level of knowledge had showed up in the United States, he too would have been granted immediate asylum, McFaul said.
"This was just manna from heaven for the Russians," McFaul said.
Snowden has consistently denied suggestions from U.S. officials that he has given Russia classified information — either from a computer or based on what’s in his head — in exchange for asylum there. Nevertheless, McFaul said, even if Snowden isn’t sharing secrets, he handed Putin a political and PR victory by remaining in Russia. Putin embraced Snowden as a fellow spy in a television broadcast in April. And, McFaul said, Snowden has said little about Russia’s own aggressive surveillance operations, which he said include recording the phone calls of American diplomats and then posting them on the Internet.
"From the Russian perspective, this has been great," McFaul told the conference.
McFaul recalled a series of high-level meetings in 2013 following Snowden’s disclosures, when Obama administration officials huddled about how to contain the fallout from his revelations. McFaul took part in conversations via video teleconference, often late into the night Moscow time. "On a personal level, that guy really ruined my summer last year," McFaul joked about Snowden. But, he allowed, "The debate he raised is an important one" about the limits of U.S. intelligence gathering and personal privacy.
McFaul didn’t predict how much longer Snowden might stay in Russia, but he said that the American fugitive "has options to come home" to the United States. In an interview with NBC News anchor Brian Williams in May, Snowden said that he would like to return and appeared open to the possibility of a deal with federal prosecutors that would allow him to avoid a long prison sentence. McFaul, who’s now a consultant for NBC News, said he helped Williams prepare for the Snowden interview.
Turning to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where a cease-fire ended on Wednesday with an eruption of violent clashes between the central government and Russian separatists, McFaul said that Putin could end the hostilities at any moment he chooses. If the Russian strongman were to appear on national television and tell separatist fighters battling Ukraine’s fragile central government to lay down their arms, the conflict "would be over in a heartbeat," McFaul said.
McFaul dismissed suggestions that Putin wanted to effectively rebuild the former Soviet Union by taking over more territory. Instead, the diplomat said that Putin’s decision to conquer and annex Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula was driven by his fury over the collapse of the Ukrainian government and the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, a close Putin ally. In early 2013, McFaul said, Obama administration officials had been working hard to broker a peaceful settlement between Yanukovych and his political opponents. But when those talks ultimately failed and Yanukovych fled the capital, Putin concluded that the Americans had "duped him" and had helped install a new government that was hostile to Moscow.
"That’s when [Putin] said, ‘To hell with them. I’m done worrying about what [the Americans and the Europeans] think of me,’" McFaul said. "And that’s when he decided to go into Crimea."
Noah Shachtman is Foreign Policy's executive editor of news, directing the magazine's coverage of breaking events in international security, intelligence, and global affairs. A Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, he's reported from Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, and Russia. He's written about technology and defense for the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, among others.
Previously, Shachtman was a contributing editor at Wired magazine, where he co-founded and edited its national security blog, Danger Room. The site took home the Online Journalism Award for best beat reporting in 2007, and a 2012 National Magazine Award for reporting in digital media.
Shachtman has spoken before audiences at West Point, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Aspen Security Forum, the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, Harvard Law School, and National Defense University. The offices of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and the Director of National Intelligence have all asked him to contribute to discussions on cyber security and emerging threats. The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, PBS, ABC News, and NPR have looked to him to provide insight on military developments.
In 2003, Shachtman founded DefenseTech.org, which quickly emerged as one of the web's leading resources on military hardware. The site was later sold to Military.com. During his tenure at Wired, he patrolled with Marines in the heart of Afghanistan's opium country, embedded with a Baghdad bomb squad, pored over the biggest investigation in FBI history, exposed technical glitches in the U.S. drone program, snuck into the Los Alamos nuclear lab, profiled Silicon Valley gurus and Russian cybersecurity savants, and underwent experiments by Pentagon-funded scientists at Stanford.
Before turning to journalism, Shachtman worked as a professional bass player, book editor, and campaign staffer on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Shachtman lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Elizabeth, and their sons, Leo and Giovanni.| Argument |