When did Snowden go over to the Russians?

In three weeks, Edward Snowden will celebrate having lived one year in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Everybody familiar with espionage, particularly when it involves Russians, understands that Ed lives under the watchful eye care of Russian intelligence, as he has from the moment he set foot in Moscow. He is working for them now, indeed he really has no choice. They provide his lawyer, his watchers, and they control his movements and actions. How this works was recently explained by the retired KGB general who made his legendary name recruiting and running American traitors just like Ed.

Naturally, Ed’s defenders, as well as people uninformed about intelligence – there’s a good deal of overlap between those two groups – ask for “evidence” that Ed is working for the Russians. To ask the question indicates a deep misunderstanding, perhaps willful, of how the espionage game is played, particularly by Chekists. Vladimir Putin’s Russia does not take in American intelligence defectors – and if you don’t understand that word, don’t question its use here – without something in return (see: quid pro quo, another term that’s relevant). We will not have the full story on what exactly happened with this case for years, maybe decades, probably when a Russian intelligence officer defects to the West with insider details, as sometimes happens. Until then, however, much of the essential outline is visible.

The critical question from a counterintelligence viewpoint is: When did Ed go over to the Russians? That answer will elaborate a great deal about Snowden’s true motivations, and those of his collaborators and co-conspirators. (As readers of this blog are aware, I‘ve long advocated an examination of the key role in the Snowden Operation played by Wikileaks, and it’s more important than ever since Wikileaks has admitted they told Ed to leave Hong Kong and go to Russia a year ago.) In the SpyWar, as it’s played in the Division I game where the Russians are, defections happen, and there’s invariably a complicated backstory, and this case is surely no exception. Bob Baer, the famous CIA operations officer and media gadfly in his retirement from espionage, this week opined that Ed went over to the Russians back in 2007, when he was serving in Geneva as an IT guy on a CIA contract. That seems plausible, indeed it’s the most obvious place to look, given known Russian intelligence tradecraft (konspiratsiya – “conspiracy” – in Russian), but there are other possibilities too. Some have asked questions about an “ethical hacker” course Ed took in New Delhi in 2010, and that seems a story that needs investigation, given India’s longtime reputation as a playground for Russian intelligence.

What can be dismissed out of hand is the notion that, while staying in Hong Kong a year ago, Ed met with Russian spies – sorry, “diplomats” – at their consulate there and, all of a sudden, decided to hop a flight to Moscow. Espionage simply does not work that way, folks. We can only guess at what was on Ed’s mind, but those who know the Russian “special services” understand that such a scenario is so implausible that it can be ruled out altogether. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) simply does not allow American intelligence personnel they’ve just met to jump on a flight to Mother Russia. That never happens.

Why not, you ask? In real life, unlike in spy movies, the risks are too great. Deciding to work with a possible defector, particularly one from your main adversary, is a big step in and of itself, since both sides play sneaky operational games. In particular, they use dangles, fake agents who present themselves as tasty morsels, hoping for a bite. They show up uninvited to talk to the other side secretly, offering the hope of a big recruitment – if you’re the Russian intelligence officer working the duty desk the day that “Mr. Walker”* comes through the door, your career just got made if this works out. Remember that for the Russians, penetrations of U.S. intelligence are the Holy Grail of espionage, while recruiting a spy inside NSA – the prime target that Kremlin spymasters termed OMEGA during the Cold War –  was the highest of all KGB, and now SVR, priorities.

But there are risks. Big ones. “Mr. Walker” may not be real. He (or she) may be testing you: memorizing names and faces, watching your espionage procedures, seeing how you and your team react to his showing up at your door. Therefore the SVR, like any competent intelligence service, first establishes the bona fides of this guy. You do name checks, you search the internet, you scour your own secret databases, and those of friendly services, to see if they’ve heard of this guy and the exact organization he claims to work for. Does the story he’s telling you seem plausible? Extensive background checks and maybe polygraphs (note plural) will be ordered. In short, you need to know: Does this guy check out?

What you really want to avoid is getting deceived and taking the bait on a guy who actually is working for the other side and playing you. Such a misstep can have grave consequences. That “Mr. Walker” is just an attention-seeking fantasist also has to ruled out, since that will be an embarrassing report back to Moscow too. As the team on the spot, you need to make sure that this scenario is what it seems to be, so you use a lot of precautions. You take your time so as not to get burned. Establishing that “Mr. Walker” is who he says he is, and not a dangle or a plant or a nutjob, can take weeks, if not months. And this is just to recruit him as an agent, a witting source of the SVR, to say nothing of his becoming a defector, which is a much bigger step. You always prefer an agent-in-place over a defector, since that gets public and messy, not to mention that the moment he reaches Russia, your defector’s information has ceased to be up-to-date. A potentially golden source has dried up once he defects.

Letting Edward Snowden move to Moscow was a major decision for the Kremlin, one with huge political ramifications. We can be certain that such a decision was not made by a mid-grade SVR officer in Hong Kong, neither was such a choice made quickly by the Russians, particularly under a president who understands counterintelligence very well. The reality is that Edward Snowden’s relationship with Russian intelligence, whatever it exactly is, predated his arrival in Moscow on June 23, 2013, probably by a considerable margin. It did not begin in Hong Kong, but before, possibly long before. It cannot be ruled out that the SVR (or possibly GRU, Russian military intelligence, which is a formidable espionage service its own) initially dealt with Ed in a false-flag operation, masking their true identity for a time, but experts who are acquainted with Russia’s “special services” understand that the Official Narrative, that Ed just up and moved to Moscow, cannot be true.

Getting to the bottom of this matter is critical to assessing the damage wrought by the Snowden Operation, which despite the claims of his lawyers, is vast and unprecedented. Although it will probably take years to unravel the full story of Ed’s relationship with Russian intelligence, this matter needs thorough investigation now. The U.S. Intelligence Community has senior people who, following in the long line of espionage bosses who really would rather not know the full story behind an epic traitor, seem to prefer to avert eyes from this issue, just as many journalists do. For them, as bad as the Snowden story is already, think how much worse it will look if Ed was really working for the Russians for years: that would be a truly epic counterintelligence fail, and careers and reputations will be ruined. But we need to know the full story here if we are to prevent future Snowdens, as we must.

*IC inside joke: People who show up at the door asking to work for you, unsolicited and unrecruited, are called “walk-ins” by U.S. intelligence (the Russians prefer the term “volunteer”), hence the unknown guy is referred to as “Mr. Walker” until his actual identity is established. Relevant analogies to the Snowden case in the annals of U.S. intelligence are Edward Lee Howard (a failed CIA case officer who defected to Moscow in 1985) and William Martin and Bernon Mitchell (NSA analysts who defected to Moscow in 1960): in all these cases the men had contact with the KGB that long predated their defections; all ended badly.


21 comments on “When did Snowden go over to the Russians?”
  1. Dan says:

    This might explain why he spent 40 days at Sheremetyevo, as well as several days in the Russian HK embassy. The FSB needed to “do their due diligence,” from their perspective, to make sure he had the goods, so to speak. Your account lines up with Soldatov (Russian watchdog) who mentioned that Greenwald’s book was incomplete because it did not detail Snowden’s life in Russia. Perhaps Greenwald was warned by the FSB at severe cost not to publish those details.

    It also raises another question. Snowden was in the Russian consulate in HK, and stated that “he destroyed all his information” before he went to Russia. What if that statement “destroyed his information before he went to Russia” really a statement of plausible deniability, covering a possibility that he gave the Russians the information in HK? Snowden could say with a shred of truth that he didn’t have the documents in Moscow and that he got rid of them in HK. The FSB personnel on the ground in HK would analyze the documents, email them back to Moscow in a highly secure fashion to their superiors, and once FSB HQ gave the go-ahead, put Snowden on the plane for further questioning.

    1. 20committee says:

      Great questions all …

      1. 1. I’m not certain how much of a watchdog Soldatov is these days, as his watching can be selective, but certainly his decision to criticize Greenwald lines up with WikiLeaks’ agenda, among others.

        2. Although, sure, it may be also solely his own agenda and the agenda of anyone who points out that we don’t know what Ed did not only in those periods you say, like the 40 days at Sheremetyovo, and the days in or with the Russian HK embassy, but the weeks before he met Greenwald and Poitras (May 19-June 2) in Hong Kong, but months after that in Moscow

  2. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Exactly the sort of post I’ve been hoping for !

  3. This is a great round-up.

    I’ve been working the other angle of HOW Snowden came to work with the Russians, which is via WikiLeaks and Tor, which as you say, should get more scrutiny. In fact, their servers should be seized by the relevant authorities in my view.


    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks, Cathy

  4. gelada says:

    Given his current location I agree that it is important to question the relationship between Snowden and Russia, particularly its intelligence services. I am not convinced by the certainty of Snowden relationship starting before Hong Kong. By that stage there had already been some public vetting of his releases, and it was already causing embarrassment to the NSA. That was a significantly greater cost than someone dangled up to an embassy. In addition there was a non-typical urgency to the situation, there was a ticking clock as the Chinese decided how they wished to play this.

    So assuming for the moment that this was the first contact with the Russians, they would have been faced with the need to make a quick decision and perhaps violate the rule. They could not know if this was a trap, but there were benefits to taking this dangle beyond the information it provided. For example raising exactly the question this post asks. Within US intelligence, it must have been a tough time when rumors of Russians started to come out. Had this guy been working for the Chinese? the Russians? Both? How long had he been doing that? Questions that had to be asked and possibly hard to answer. By bringing Snowden in Russia helped make those questions linger even if they never trusted anything he said.

    Of course none of this is evidence that there was no prior relationship! I do, however, have one question about your scenario. Assuming that he was being managed by the Russians, why go first to Hong Kong? He would have been an incredibly valuable asset, and would be very exposed there, especially as his present was made so public.

    1. 20committee says:

      Ed was moderately safe in HK, actually.

      1. gelada says:

        Can you say why? I presume that we cannot assume the Chinese were not interested in the whole situation.

      2. 20committee says:

        I think the PRC got what it wanted out of Ed.

  5. Loud and Arrogant says:

    Enjoy your writing, BUT
    Snowden claims he objected about NSA methods to his coworkers and supervisors.
    Where was the so-called “management”?
    And the CI people?
    What were they doing while this guy was (allegedly) shooting off his mouth?
    How many more Snowdens might here be because of inept management and napping CI?

  6. Percy Pointer says:

    Ok, so I don’t believe Snowden was or is an agent of the Russians. But for the sake of theoretical discussion, suppose he were.
    Why would he be in Russia now? The best time to exfiltrate an agent is never. If he remained on board at the N̶S̶A̶ Department of Agriculture he could have continued to obtain and provide ongoing intelligence to his contact for an extended period of time. Why pull him out? And even if so, why do so noisily with reporters and TV interviews? When has that been done?
    Why all the wild hippity hop around the world carrying laptops? Why take an extremely well placed agent with ongoing access to, apparently, everything and cut off his usefulness?
    Is it because that brilliant intellect Keith Alexander was on to him? Seems as if they were on to him, Hawaii would be a particularly bad place to be. If you vanish from Washington you could pop up anywhere on earth in a month, having gotten there in any of a million ways. If you want to get out of Hawaii, you get in line at a couple of points of exit, all of which could easily be controlled.
    If he were an agent, why would there have been any need for lawyers and airport drama? Why wouldn’t he have simply been whisked in to the country and been met by a limo?
    If a person were inclined to believe your conspiracy theories, there seems to be a great deal of evidence they’d have to ignore.

  7. SK says:

    John, as a Canadian and one not especially versed in U.S. intelligence matters I find your blog incredibly informative. Don`t agree with every opinion or interpretation but I am self-aware enough to realize that my opinion on these matters is worth far less than yours.

    My question is this: unlikely as it may be, let`s pretend for a second that Snowden is telling the truth about the circumstances under which he first spoke to Russia (ie that it was in Hong Kong, that he was not working for them up to that point, etc). In that situation, what *would* have happened? Would Russia insist on having him sit in Hong Kong for a few weeks while they ran everything down and were comfortable allowing him to fly to Moscow? Why is it not possible they would have allowed him to fly there right away and sit him down under heavy guard while they did that research for however long it takes?

    Not a sarcastic question – that is what *I* think they would have done, but you seem to be saying that it is impossible. What are the risks in that situation? It seems to me that Snowden was in such a weak negotiating position that “Fly to Moscow and sit in a room for a month with a guy staring at you until we are convinced we can trust you to go to the bathroom unsupervised“ might actually have looked ok.

    Thanks again for the blog.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks for your feedback. If Ed’s cover story were true, and he first reached out to Russian intelligence in Hong Kong, the Russians would have parked him in a safe 3rd country – it’s clear the Chinese wanted him gone, as they’d already gotten what they wanted out of Ed – while they established his bona fides and arranged a soft(er) landing for him in Russia. Letting him come to Moscow at all, even just SVO, would be a serious risk, politically, to take with a possible US intelligence plant or fraudster.

      1. SK says:

        That makes sense. Thank you!

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