Commentary Magazine


From Fugitive to Hostage for Snowden?

Such is the interest in Edward Snowden’s travel plans that a plane taking off without him on board is newsworthy. But the news that a Moscow-to-Cuba plane left Sheremetyevo Airport without Snowden is receiving prominent placement–and three reporter bylines, as well as seven contributing bylines for background on the story–on the New York Times’s website.

That may seem like overkill, but in fact it’s appropriate. And it may signal that the diplomatic angle of this case is about to escalate. Over the weekend, Snowden left Hong Kong with Cuba or Ecuador as his expected destination but with a stopover in Moscow first. Though he was seemingly there only to catch his connecting flight, that would have been a strange development, considering that Vladimir Putin has more to gain from virtually any scenario other than one in which Snowden just passes through Russia on his continuing search for asylum.

The Obama administration has asked Russia to send Snowden back to the U.S. for prosecution. That means Putin can win points from the Obama administration and its allies in the West by complying and cooperating. Or he can play to domestic anti-Americanism–as China did by refusing to extradite Snowden–and let the fugitive leaker continue on his journey. But each of those two options can be “supersized,” so to speak, by detaining Snowden first.

Earlier reports from the Times shed light on the timing of Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong:

Two Western intelligence experts, who worked for major government spy agencies, said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong, and that he said were with him during his stay at a Hong Kong hotel.

If that were the case, they said, China would no longer need or want to have Mr. Snowden remain in Hong Kong.

Chinese authorities seemed anxious to get rid of Snowden since they didn’t want to hand him over to the U.S. and didn’t want to be the center of public pressure over it. But they obviously wanted to know everything Snowden knew, and since no thinking person would ever take Snowden’s word for anything, they could not just ask him. There was likely no need to ask anyway, and the Times report suggests that was indeed the case.

So China chose Option No. 2: play to domestic anti-Americanism and let Snowden go. But the Chinese leadership made sure to maximize its benefits by getting access to all of Snowden’s information first. Letting Snowden leave was almost certainly a strategic error on China’s part, since they could have won credit for returning Snowden to the U.S. while still obtaining all the U.S. government secrets Snowden carried with him and ensured that no one else would gain access to Snowden.

Russia and China may act in concert at the UN Security Council, but they are rivals. Letting Snowden go to Russia enabled the Russian security services to try their hand at wringing secrets out of Snowden, and perturbed the U.S. For the same reasons, it would have been strategically foolhardy for Russia to simply ignore Snowden. And today’s Times report very credibly hints that Putin never truly considered this option:

It was unclear how Mr. Snowden spent his time at the airport or precisely where. The departure of the flight to Havana from Moscow came after an all-night vigil by journalists who were posted outside a hotel in the transit zone of the airport where Mr. Snowden was apparently staying. But on Monday morning, hotel staff said that no one named Snowden was staying there.

Russian news services had reported that Mr. Snowden would take the flight to Cuba, prompting a late rush for tickets from the horde of journalists gathered at the airport. But others dismissed it as a ruse to put the news media and others off Mr. Snowden’s trail.

One of the reasons Snowden’s decision to flee to Hong Kong was so detrimental to the U.S. was because, as Max Boot pointed out presciently and immediately, he would be almost certainly unable to hide the information he held on electronic devices from the Chinese government, even if he wanted to withhold the state secrets. It’s unclear whether Russian hacking abilities match those of the Chinese government, but what the Putin regime may lack in technological proficiency it can certainly make up in persuasive questioning from the FSB.

Snowden’s detour through Russia, then, is likely to yield an intelligence windfall for Putin regardless of what he decides to do with Snowden once Snowden goes from being a useful idiot to a useless idiot. Thus it never made much sense for Putin to stand aside. Today’s reports align much more with common sense. Now, if Putin does get the intel he’s looking for from Snowden, what he does next will depend on whether he cares more about domestic opinion or America’s. Putin can do what China did and appeal to nationalist sentiment by refusing to extradite Snowden to the U.S. Or he can one-up China by gaining Snowden’s intelligence and then winning Western plaudits by cooperating.

Russian public opinion has not recently been at the forefront of Putin’s mind, but then again neither has Obama’s. Of course, he could hand Snowden over to American authorities only in return for some additional concession, outplaying both the U.S. and China. It would be ironic, certainly, for Snowden to flee the U.S. in the name of openness and transparency only to become a hostage of the Russian security services.

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