Snowden and Putin: U.S. Whistle-Blower’s Fate Is in Russian President’s Hands

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Luke MacGregor / Reuters

Russia's President Vladimir Putin leaves Downing Street in London on June 16, 2013

For Russia’s spy agencies, the arrival of Edward Snowden in Moscow on Sunday would have presented a great temptation, like a king salmon jumping into the lap of a grizzly bear. Here was a bona fide American intelligence source alighting in Russia with no valid passport, no bodyguards and no legal protections, possibly carrying several hard drives full of U.S. secrets and, apparently, unfriendly feelings toward his former employers at the CIA and the NSA.

But on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said his men had been keeping their distance. “Our special services have never worked with Mr. Snowden and are not working with him today,” Putin said. “As a transit passenger, he is in the transit hall [of the airport], and that is where he remains.”

So for two days Snowden has been hanging out among the stiff-backed chairs and lousy cafés of Sheremetyevo airport, within whispering distance of Russian spies, and all of them have avoided “working” with him? That would be a feat of restraint. The Kremlin’s intelligence agencies spend enormous resources trying to learn the kinds of secrets that Snowden possesses. And the U.S. surveillance programs he has already exposed to the Guardian and the Washington Post seem to be just a taste of the information he is carrying.

According to Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who first reported the leak, Snowden has “in his possession thousands of documents, which, if published, would impose crippling damage on the United States’ surveillance capabilities and systems around the world.” At least in the past, Russian security services would have killed — literally — to get their hands on such a cache of documents.

(MORE: With Apparent Help From WikiLeaks, Snowden Leaves Hong Kong)

In negotiations with Washington, Snowden could prove no less valuable. The U.S. has unleashed a global manhunt for the 30-year-old whistle-blower, pressuring allies and enemies alike to send him back to the U.S. to stand trial for espionage and other charges. China has already refused these demands by allowing Snowden to take off from Hong Kong to Moscow over the weekend. If Russia decides to take Snowden into custody, it would be unlikely to grant his extradition without asking something in exchange.

It could, for instance, ask for the freedom of two of its citizens — the convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout and the convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko — whose release from U.S. prisons Russia has long been demanding. It could also ask for the extradition of the former Russian spymaster, reportedly named Alexander Poteyev, who defected to the U.S. in 2010 and allegedly exposed an entire network of Russian agents.

Why, then, would Russia keep its hands off Snowden? On Tuesday evening, Putin hinted coyly at an explanation. When asked about the possibility of extraditing the whistle-blower back to the U.S., he told a press conference: “Snowden sees himself as a rights activist and claims that he is fighting to spread information. Just ask yourself: Is it worth handing people like that over for imprisonment? In any case, I would prefer not to deal with such questions, because it will turn out the same as shearing a pig — lots of squealing, little wool.”

Apart from the hokey Russian aphorism — one of Putin’s elocutionary staples — the President seems to be reveling in the chance to lecture Washington from a moral pedestal. In Snowden’s case, the usual roles have been reversed — the U.S. is the one trying to silence its critic, and Russia is offering that critic some cover. The propaganda value of this situation is enormous for Putin — it serves to highlight the hypocrisy of U.S. finger wagging over human rights, and it draws attention away from the fact that several of Putin’s fiercest critics are currently on trial in Moscow.

At the same time, Putin insists that Russia is taking a hands-off approach — it is not granting Snowden asylum or diplomatic cover. Instead, it is trying to keep out of Washington’s business, just as Putin would like Washington to keep out of Russia’s. “Mr. Snowden is a free man,” Putin said. “The faster he chooses a final destination, the better it will be for us and for himself.” In other words, Mr. Snowden, please get out of Russia’s hair.

Most likely, he soon will, perhaps flying on to Ecuador, where he has applied for political asylum. But that does not mean Russian security services will necessarily avoid debriefing him before he catches his connecting flight. Indeed, many observers in the U.S. seem to have assumed that Snowden already gave up all of his secrets to Russia and China.

“That stuff is gone,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia told the Washington Post on Monday. “I guarantee the Chinese intelligence service got their hands on that right away. If they imaged the hard drives and then returned them to him, well, then the Russians have that stuff now.”

(MORE: U.S. Government ‘Disappointed’ Hong Kong Let Snowden Leave, Asks Russia to Extradite Him)

Officials from WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing organization that is helping Snowden find safe haven, have denied this. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has said repeatedly that neither the Russian nor the Chinese intelligence services had questioned Snowden. But why would they have missed such an opportunity?

Just last month, Russia’s Federal Security Service, the intelligence agency known as the FSB, claimed to have caught a CIA spy in the act of recruiting a Russian officer, and it used that incident to its full advantage. The alleged spy turned out to be Ryan Fogle, an official at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and he was detained during a late-night sting operation while wearing a blond wig as his disguise. Fogle was then marched into the FSB headquarters and given a lecture about spying protocol as state-TV cameras rolled. The point was to show the Russian public that the U.S. is still up to its Cold War tricks, so Russia is justified in hitting back.

Alexei Pushkov, the head of the foreign-relations committee in Russia’s parliament, was quick to make this point on Monday. “People are already saying that giving Snowden asylum would be a ‘Cold War act’ on our part,” Pushkov tweeted. “But since spying with a wig on is now the norm, providing asylum is not a [Cold War] act.” In other words, Snowden is fair game if Russia wants to keep him — a sentiment echoed by the Kremlin ombudsman for human rights, Vladimir Lukin, who told the Interfax news agency: “We can hand him over or we can not hand him over.” And at this point, there isn’t much the U.S. can do about it.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear that Moscow would not bend to any pressure from the U.S. over Snowden. “We consider it absolutely unjustified and unacceptable … to accuse Russia of violating U.S. law,” Lavrov said in response to criticism from his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry. “There is not the slightest legal basis for such behavior from U.S. officials.” So the U.S. is left to wait for Snowden’s next move, most likely a flight from Moscow to some destination in Latin America. And as for the question of whether Russian security services have managed to shear Snowden of his remaining secrets — that will probably remain between the two of them, and neither side is likely to squeal.

MORE: On the Run to Moscow, Edward Snowden Keeps Americans Guessing
71 comments
paulgeorges
paulgeorges

If there was someone brave like him before there would have been no coup in Chile to install the "democratic" Pinochet friend of the U.S., there would not have "Democrat" Shah Iran, not the "democratic" military Argentina and other "democratic" military in central and South America, not to mention the Vietnam War . U.S. democracy and as a  god money at any price.The recent history gives us ample evidence of espionage by the U.S. to friendly countries, to do everything against Europe to let be  lost its empire to take it's  place. Colonial power as criticized by the U.S. is replaced by an output that is less visible, which costs less and reported much more supporting local dictators  removing barriers and by any means.         the U.S. is a great "friend" it is better to monitor



RamonRoman
RamonRoman

What will it take for you Americans, all of you, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, to raise your voices and actions and face any kind of Government that is turning all of you into sheeps.  You should all rise and protect Snowden as your hero, instead of Putin or any other foreign leader who offer protection to a person whose only crime is to show all of you what these Governments are doing with your cherished personal freedoms. If your Government, any of your governments act in an immoral way, that's the way is going to proceed with the outside world due to its unlimited power.  You are seeing and experimenting it now, with their support for fanatical terrorists who in the end are going to turn against you, as history has shown you over and over.

  You have to start by straighten up your politicians in the way that the Founding Fathers wanted  with the Constitution, that still is the envy of the World. If they supersede the constitution and your Bill of Rights with Laws that accommodate their political beliefs and the protection of a minority, then if you continue doing this, you are simply toasted and you are going to regret it when you really live in the Big Brother government 100%.

Zeiter
Zeiter

Other than revealing the presence of a surveillance program, nothing else is up against him. He has asked questions about the 'lines that need to be drawn' in the extent of surveillance and 'checks and balances' (I assume). I dont suppose he has been foolish enough to more information with him than was needed. To this extent he may not be of much use to either of the countries other than create diplomatic spats.

GeorgeCooper677
GeorgeCooper677

It's hilarious that the US government thinks that Snowden has the secret information on his computer(s) hard drive.  I also think Snowden needs some $$ help getting out of Russia, and soon.  This situation can blow up in his face at any moment.

sethwrkr
sethwrkr

LOL everybody is punking Obama.  Cant get no respect.  The Rodney Dangerfield of international politics.

StephenSwain
StephenSwain

Mr. Putin, please note, did not say that they had not touched his computers while he was in transit.  It's perhaps worth noting.  Bear in mind that the luggage rode in a separate car enroute to the airplane.  

erikarosalesv
erikarosalesv

@TIME: Snowden & Putin:U.S.whistle-blower’s fate is in Russian hands ti.me/18eHKZG /seguro la curiosidad ya mató a todos los gatos

vikkypareek
vikkypareek

@TIME @TIMEWorld Putin rejects US's plea to hand over Snowden, looks lik the man finally found a shelter. Well dun Russia!

rich10e
rich10e

Stop arms to Syrian rebs!“@TIME: Snowden and Putin: U.S. whistle-blower’s fate is in Russian President’s hands | ti.me/18eHKZG

Gonki
Gonki

Back when I lived in the USA as a new immigrant from Russia I was often harassed over Putin's FSB (successor to KGB in case you didn't already know) alleged spying over Internet use by the Russian citizens. I recall countless times sitting across table from brainwashed bullies at lousy American cafes, receiving wise cracks about how in my home country Internet use is monitored by the evil Putin's Kremlin. It used to be one of the most frequent bullying themes, spewed with giggles and all-knowing smirks. Today, years after I escaped that hell, the hard evidence of America's own faults is out. Subsequently there is one mockery less. I can understand why Americans are seething at Snowden as shown in the adjective-riddled piece above: he took away one of their favorite pacifiers.

duduong
duduong

41 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King said: "There come a time when silence is betrayal". Now the bulk of the US media cannot even do that. They are stepping on each others in a rush to put slime on this courageous idealistic young man, when the rest of world unites in support for truth. What has happened to this country? 

Time108
Time108

Snowden said his only fear was that the nation would forget what he revealed. It looks like that's already happening.

The mass media follow the government's talking points and bury the real story. 

The messenger becomes the story rather than the message.

GCL1
GCL1

Why must Putin extradite Snowden to the US, a nation now populated mostly by imbeciles and scoundrels?

While Snowden represents most accurately the spirit of the American Founding Fathers, the majority of Americans today are spineless cowards and unthinking hypocrites living in a de facto police state, smug and stupidly content with their lot in life - a nation of dumb, clueless, pompous, arrogant, self-righteous, underperforming, incompetent talkers who think they still possess the moral high ground to lecture, preach to, and harangue the rest of world on freedoms and values.

It is good Putin is giving you a beatdown, right after China slapped you down in Hong Kong. They should NEVER give up Snowden.

ArmandWinter
ArmandWinter

Let's trade Viktor Bout for Snowden and while we're at it trade the Guantanamo prisoners for POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho.

55larock
55larock

@lynncollins7 you will have to break free of major media if you want the real story behind Edward Snowden. I am sure you know that already.

fabernathy
fabernathy

I would rather be under the protection of the devil himself.

FindingKarma
FindingKarma

I'm baffled as to how someone who has given away his freedoms to bring to light misuse of power by the government of the people would be considered in such a light. Our government is claiming he has hard drives full of data and that he is giving said data to all our enemies. Snowden didn't turn to our enemies with what he knew. He turned to the people of the US. The ones that are supposed to hold controlling power in a free and democratic country. Our political system wishes us to view him as a traitor to the US as opposed to simply the corrupt powers currently running it.

Faberkat
Faberkat

@TIME @TIMEWorld Vladimir Putin is too busy playing with his purloined ring to waste any time with Snowden...

RamonRoman
RamonRoman

@GCL1 Well done, GCL1, more accurate description of what the majority of Americans have turned out is in your posting. They are so divided in their ignorance that they still defend their political party even though they are doing the same as the Republican administration did or worse. Snowden is not going to be the last to come out with these secret information, as long as there are true honest Americans that walk the high ground of the founding fathers. The journalist Greenweld said in an interview, the Republicans lied about the same subject in 2005 and now the Democrats with Obama are deceiving again the American people. They are spying on the American People, This is the main subject, not Snowden. As you describe the majority of Americans now, they are going to turn this aside and concentrate in their arrogance and ignorance.  

sethwrkr
sethwrkr

@GCL1

 LOL everybody is punking Obama.  Cant get no respect.  The Rodney Dangerfield of international politics.

Sh**Happened
Sh**Happened

@@une_avalanche @@TIME @@TIMEWorld Because he wanted us to know what going on. Now the messenger is on the run because we don't protect the people who exposes the truth about what is happening.  Snooping the potential bad guys is the right thing to do to procted us but not most of the citizens of this great country. Government will now expand the snooping to Snoopy.

duduong
duduong

@une_avalanche @TIME @TIMEWorld 

According to Secretary Kerry, being stupid is a fundamental American right. It looks like you are exercising it.

Given the power of the evil American empire, how many nations dare to stand up against it? Take Germany for example: it is obviously disgusted with the US, but it still dares not to protect Snowden. Hell, it could not even say no when the US forced it to buy 4 Global Hawks it could not legally use, for half a billion dollars. Snowden has no choice. As for taking the job, he already knew from his CIA years about these secret domestic spying programs. He just wanted proof to show his fellow Americans. How does that shine a bad light on him?

StephenDing
StephenDing

@une_avalanche @TIME @TIMEWorld and if he gets asylum from Ecuador, or if he manages to go to any other country without being handed over, then you're basically implying that it's the great and almighty USA vs the World

FindingKarma
FindingKarma

@Sh**Happened @FindingKarma I think that is clearly the case. I also believe that a government of the people, by the people and for the people is not where we are today. We have instead created a government based out of the upper echelons of society (in regards to monetary means). While it is easy to blame our government for this situation the reality is that the majority of us only need to look so far as our own greed to understand the how and why of where we are at today. Unfortunately as a society we are not aware enough to see fault in ourselves and instead look to place blame forever elsewhere.