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The curiously appropriate fate of Edward Snowden


Edward Snowden was a computer programming / systems contractor to the United States Central Intelligence Agency. When you sign a contract with such an organisation, you undertake certain types of confidentiality obligation not typical in regular contracts and the effects of which are explained to you. If you breach them, you go to prison. This is exceptional for breach of an obligation of confidentiality. It is also exceptional because you cannot raise a public interest defence for what you did. The reason the law is so draconian in this specific field is because intelligence agencies, whose work is by its very nature covert, would be compromised if their staff could leak the covert work it was doing (that must be presumed to be in the national interest) to adversarial foreign governments and the like. Indeed if this could happen, then the lives and welfares of people working for the Agency abroad might be placed in jeopardy. Such people are often risking their lives in what they are doing, and they must be protected at all costs. Thus this is a strict liability rule of criminal law.


Nevertheless in civilised countries, workers for intelligence agencies who believe they have found wrongdoing or illegality in the agency's operation have access to whistleblowing procedures where their allegations or concerns can be addressed secretly, without jeopardising the operation of the agency or its agents. Such whistleblowing mechanisms are imperfect, because it takes a lot of work to ensure that the agency is not just investigating itself in such procedures. Nevertheless this is the best compromise that we can reasonably reach.


If you don't like these rules, then that is fine. Nobody is forced to agree to them and nobody is fooled into thinking they mean something else. It is all explained very clearly. You may still work for an agency without making commitments of this kind, in all sorts of circumstances; but then you understand that the information made available to you will be restricted.


Edward Snowden agreed to these strictures, and he did it for the money. He was paid very well as a CIA contractor, knowing that the flip side of his high compensation was a series of confidentiality undertakings of this kind.


And then he went and broke them. Not in some trivial way, but in a very serious way: disclosing publicly (which in the era of the internet means to the world) the details of a complex ECHELON (western intelligence alliance) programme to surveil people who are potentially of danger to the national interest of the United States and her allies, such as Russian agents present in western countries and other undesirable sorts of people who the government has an entirely legitimate interest in monitoring. As a result he set back the West in their relentless efforts to best the Russians in particular in the game of signals espionage. A lot of the West's work in this regard had to be started again because the work they had done in following Russian agents' communications and similar such things had been leaked to the Russians through Snowden's actions.


Snowden's motives were obscure. The reason he gave was that the practice of the US Government in monitoring the electronic communications of dangerous, criminal or otherwise undesirable people was so morally outrageous that it needed to be disclosed to the world. But this does not ring true. The vast majority of sane reasonable people in the United States - and amongst her western liberal pro-democratic allies - would agree that actually it is perfectly legitimate for the US Government to surveil the electronic communications of such people. This author certainly does; and he considers himself a civil liberties hardliner.


Snowden had not tried the internal complaint mechanisms first. He just went out on a limb, pursuing a bizarre moral compass entirely of his own internal devising (no accomplices have been publicly named), and thereby wrecked US and allied intelligence operations when he had previously specifically agreed under pain of criminal penalty not to do this. He was no public interest journalist. He was a spy gone bad. He meets the definition of 'double agent' - an intelligence agent who shares classified damaging information of his home state with the enemy, intentionally. Everyone knows that if you put this sort of stuff on the internet then the Russians are going to read it; hence his betrayal in favour of the Russians was intentional.


We imagine that his motive was personal hubris, self-belief and even some level of contempt for his home country, that he betrayed. We are not aware that anyone substantially induced him to do this, which might be mitigation.


We should interject briefly to mention the case of Julian Assange. A foreigner, a person one might colourably describe as a journalist (albeit an unusual one), a person who did not undertake specific criminally enforced obligations of secrecy, and who (it is alleged) merely encouraged others to induce their obligations of this nature, is a different case. His motives may also have been egotistical; but that may not be to the point. In the common law at least (before statutory codification), you are allowed to use secret information to assist the enemy, unless your actions are so hienous as to comprise high treason. That is all we will say about the Assange case; ultimately a jury will decide his fate, which is as it should be.


Mr Snowden obviously realised the extreme illegality of what he was doing, because he promptly fled - to China. However it seems that the Chinese did not sympathise with what he had done, and they forced him onto a flight to Moscow. From there he had booked onward travel to Cuba. But the Russians weren't going to let him go, even after he had helped them so much. If there is one thing Russians don't like, it is treachery. They admire people who are loyal to their country, even if that country is an enemy. They despise traitors. So Mr Snowden, in their eyes, became fair game for whatever they decided to do with him to maximise their convenience.


Hence after a typically ludicrous Russian legal procedure, they granted him asylum in Russia, that well-known port of call for the world's refugees seeking legal protection. Then they put him in comfortable gated residential premises in Moscow albeit with the gates guarded. So he had complete freedom of movement - whenever Russian President Vladimir Putin so decided.


He was then wheeled out on the international cyber-lecture circuit, to cause maximum embarrassment to the Americans until he ceased to be useful. Then in 2022 he disappeared entirely, becoming nothing more than a Twitter account (@snowden) churning out spuriously pro-Russian propaganda such as the baseless theory (that even if true Snowden would not know about anyway) that the US federal police, the FBI, are amassing every US citizen's internet browsing metadata to create personality profiles of the entire US population. Who is to say whether Snowden writes these Twitter pieces or someone in the Russian government does so for him.


Snowden didn't like living in Russia - a complex society he knew nothing about. He occasionally alluded to his displeasure with livimg in Russia during his active Moscow years.


In September 2022 the Kremlin announced that Vladimir Putin had decided to make Smowden a Russian citizen. It's not clear what he thought about this. On 2 December 2022, Smowden's Russian lawyer issued a statement that his Russian citizenship had been granted upon his swearing allegiance to the Russian flag, etcetera. No video of this event exists, which is anomalous because ordinarily the Russians would want to use such footage as propaganda. As a dual national he has no rights of consular assistance in his country of second nationality. So the US Embassy in Moscow could be rebuffed by the Russian authorities in the event of any enquiries.


Where is he now? We imagine he is dead. The purpose of making him a Russian citizen was to kill him. However if anyone has any contemporary sightings of him, please let us know.


Snowden had no supportive words to make in favour of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. For this reason we imagine that the Russians simply lost any use for him to achieve their goals, save for running a Twitter account full of pro-Russian propaganda which the Russians can do perfectly well by themselves without there needing to be a living person called Edward Snowden.


If our suppositions are correct, and if this is indeed what has happened to Snowden, then we cannot help but find it fitting. Edward Snowden turned traitor against his own country (even if he could not recognise it himself) in favour of the Russian Federation, a country with total disregard for the sorts of civil liberties for which Snowden may have imagined himself campaigning. Whatever has happened to Snowden, it will surely be a fittingly Russian conclusion for a traitor who turned in favour of Russia.


We do not support summary extra-jidicisl executions by internal security forces (which is probably the fate Mr Snowden suffered). But political morality has nothing to do with it. If you turn traitor to the Russians, and then go and live in Russia, you will be bound by the rules of your new host state's brutal game. One of those rules is that foreign spies who have come to Russia for no purpose other than to escape the consequences of their treachery at home will be used by the Russians for so long as they are useful to the Russian national interest; and when they cease to be so, they will be eliminated.


We do however extend our profound sympathies to his family. They did not willingly bring this catastrophe upon themselves, and they ought to bear no responsibility for his actions.


If you are a patriot to your country, then you will have the force of your country behind you, even if you make silly mistakes or even if you are grossly negligent. If you betray your country and her allies, you will lose your backers and you will be destitute.


Let all those contemplating turning traitor to Russia know this. The Russians will do the same to you. No person in their right minds would turn traitor in favour of Russia. Sadly it seems a number of people are not in their right minds. We write this article in the hope that they might regain their right minds and not continue with such self-destructive foolishness.



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