The Edward Snowden affair grows curiouser and curiouser by the day, as Alice might say.
As of this writing, the man who exposed the crown jewels of NSA's intelligence-gathering activities is still on the international concourse at the Moscow Airport, apparently awaiting a flight to Havana, the next stop on his way to Ecuador.
So far, Mr. Snowden has missed at least two flights to Cuba, but (apparently) he has little to worry about--at least on the Russia leg of his global adventure. Various Russian leaders, including Vladimir Putin, have stated they have no intention of turning Putin over to U.S. authorities. True, there is no formal treaty covering such matters between the United States and Russia, but we have extradited at least seven individuals back to Moscow in recent years. As in most aspects of the bi-lateral relationship, extradition is clearly a one-way street.
But the travels of Edward Snowden raise some rather interesting (and dangerous) possibilities. While much of the world hails him as a hero, there is the very real chance that Snowden is nothing more than a spy, masquerading as a whistle-blower. As Bloomberg reported yesterday:
U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether Edward Snowden’s leaks may be a Chinese intelligence operation or whether China might have used his concerns about U.S. surveillance practices to exploit him, according to four American officials.
The officials emphasized there’s no hard evidence yet that Snowden was a Chinese agent or that China helped plan his flights to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, directly or through a witting or unwitting intermediary. Rather, they are duty-bound to probe such a worst-case scenario for the U.S., said the officials, who are familiar with the case and asked not to be identified to discuss classified intelligence.
To be fair, the potential "Beijing connection" may be little more than an effort by the intel community--and the Obama Administration--to cover their collective posteriors. Counter-intelligence officials were reportedly aware of Snowden's massive download of NSA collection documents in mid-May, about the time he left Hawaii and traveled to Hong Kong.
Yet, the collective resources of the FBI (on American soil) and the CIA (overseas) were unable to prevent Snowden from leaving the United States. Equally embarrassing, the same agencies have had difficulty keeping up with him as he circles the globe, and there has been no talk about possibly nabbing him. Might we suggest a little light reading about the Mossad operation that capture Adolf Eichmann in Argentina?
Meanwhile, there are hints that Snowden may have shared that treasure trove of top secret documents with his Chinese hosts during that sojourn in Hong Kong. Call it the "price of admission." While the former British colony enjoys more autonomy (and freedom) than other parts of China, the harboring of an individual like Mr. Snowden doesn't happen by accident, or without the approval of senior leadership in Beijing.
And, given the fact the Chinese have been so accommodating to the former intelligence analyst, it's quite likely they got something in return; namely, detailed information on NSA collection efforts against the PRC's computer networks. With that sort of windfall, it's quite reasonable that Beijing would offer protection, clearance for a private jet flight on to Moscow, and other forms of compensation.
In other words, Snowden may be no different from Robert Hanssen, Rick Ames, John Walker and other turncoats who sold out their country for good, old-fashioned cash. After all, Snowden needs some way to pay the bills, beyond future income for book and movie deals. For the type of information he may have provided, Snowden could receive millions of dollars from spymasters in Beijing and Moscow. That could support a very comfortable lifestyle in Havana, Quito, or other locations beyond the reach of American extradition laws.
And, consider this recent revelation. Snowden has admitted that he applied for the contractor job at Booz, Allen, Hamilton because it meant greater access to information on the NSA program. He reportedly took a substantial pay cut (down to $120,000 a year) to change jobs, and he spent just a few months with the contractor's Hawaii operation before stealing the NSA files and heading to Hong Kong. Sounds more like espionage than a whistle-blower operation.
As we noted in a previous post, issues raised by Snowden regarding domestic spying and the collection of data on millions of Americans deserve a full debate. But the "leakers" real motives also deserve closer examination. His (apparent) willingness to share information with China (and other hostile powers) suggests a motive beyond protection of our civil liberties.
ADDENDUM: While it's hard to find a winner in this sordid mess, but we think we've found one: the public relations department at Booz Allen Hamilton. Read or watch any media piece on Snowden and it's difficult to find a mention of his former employer. With all the intention focused on NSA and its activities, the century-old management consultant firm (which derives 99% of its income from the federal government) has remained quiet--and out of the limelight.
Not bad, considering the fact that Booz Allen Hamilton made the decision to hire Snowden and assigned him to the post that granted access to some of the nation's most sensitive intelligence secrets. And not bad, given the fact that company security failed badly when their employee was downloading reams of sensitive documents. Wouldn't surprise us if members of the firm's p.r. staff get bonuses for their handling of this "crisis," bonuses derived from federal dollars provided by you, the taxpayer.