Another Look at the Snowden Saga

By David T. Jones on July 6, 2013

Indeed, the panting media pursuit into the summer media doldrums suggests that what is a serious (alleged) criminal action and massive breach of USG intelligence security is devolving into farce.  (Oh where, oh where will poor Edward find a place to lay his (allegedly) traitorous – or is it heroic?—head on a semi-permanent basis?)

First, the secret flight to Hong Kong; then followed by the adroit exit flight to Moscow (during which the Hong Kong officials managed to locate technical flaws in USG extradition documents preventing action against Snowden).  And now…Moscow.

snowden.jpgHere one can almost be bitterly amused at USG fulminations regarding Russia’s/Putin’s refusal to return Snowden.  Putin can say with a more-or-less straight face that technically Snowden is not in Russia since the international transit lounge in which Snowden is embedded is not Russian territory.  Likewise, he can say that Russia has never extradited anyone and doesn’t intend to start with Snowden.  And, when reportedly Snowden was considering a request for asylum in Russia, Putin can look heavenward with a butter-won’t-melt in his mouth sanctimony and say that Snowden could stay if he didn’t release any more information embarrassing to Russia’s good friend and partner, the United States.  

But really, what did we expect?

Although it qualifies as ancient history, one might recall the 1976 defection of Soviet pilot    Viktor Belenko who landed his MIG-25 jet fighter in Japan’s Hakodate Airport.  To provide some perspective, the MIG-25 is the second fastest and second highest flying combat aircraft ever produced; variants continue in operation.  It would equate with a U.S. pilot defecting and landing a super hightech, “stealth” F-35 or F-22 in Russia.  As you might imagine, the Cold War Soviets went supersonic; demanding the return of the aircraft and Belenko.  U.S. tech intel specialists swarmed over the plane, disassembled it, and gathered top-to-bottom intelligence regarding every aspect of the aircraft.  After 67 days, it was returned to the Soviets—in 30 crates.  Belenko, himself a treasure trove of “humint” (human intelligence) was retained, providing reams of information on Soviet Air Force policies and tactics.   Ultimately, he received U.S. citizenship, financial support, and has led a quiet life in the United States; he even returned to Russia in 1995, after the collapse of the USSR, reportedly on business with no consequences.

So why would we expect, or even dream, that Putin would return Snowden?

Nor should we expect Snowden to return to the United States to “face the music” as some suggest would be the honorable approach to test his principles against U.S. justice.  Snowden certainly stole USG documents and provided information to individuals not qualified legally to obtain them.  Thus he would certainly appear prospectively guilty of theft and assorted security violations—criminal but not stupid.  One might imagine that should he return voluntarily to the   United States, regardless of “assurances,” he would be jailed without bail (“flight risk,” perchance?), face endless delays in coming to trial, be highly limited in public media access chained by draconian “gag orders” placed on his lawyers, certainly forced to surrender all intelligence documentation in his possession, and have no access to a computer beyond being able to play “Angry Birds.”

Almost equally amusing is the feigned outrage by various EU states over the “revelation” that USG collected intelligence against them.  Such huffery-puffery is akin to the Casablanca exchange where the police officer professes shock that there is gambling in Rick’s saloon.  The reality is that virtually all states spy against all other states all the time.  The spying is limited only by the technology available and the specific information being sought.  The USG is hardly naive in recognizing itself as a target and works relentlessly to protect its diplomats and facilities against foreign collectors.

What are likely consequences from this debacle?

- A return to “stovepipe” intelligence access strictly limited to “need to know” for officials.  Gone will be the post-9/11 effort to give greater access to information to a wider range of personnel, hopefully to identify and thwart potential terrorist plans.

- Greater reliance on polygraphs (“lie detectors”) for a wider range of officials dealing with intelligence.  Polygraphs, with all of their shortcomings in reliability and “false positives,” also have a scare factor for potential leaker-defectors.

If this sounds a bit like “back to the future” with a high tech twist, we can thank Edward Snowden. 


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