Three years after Edward Snowden, the American IT contractor turned global celebrity, made his media debut in Hong Kong, the truth of what really happened in this sensational affair remains elusive. The outline is clear. Snowden left his job in Hawaii with the National Security Agency in May 2013 and appeared at Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel on June 1, having made off with more than a million classified intelligence documents belonging to the American government. A few days later, Snowden appeared on camera to announce that he was lifting the top secret mask off NSA, America’s biggest and most secretive intelligence service.
Yet significant questions remain. Where was Snowden from 21 to 31 May 2013? His whereabouts in that period are unknown. Why did he choose to repeatedly visit the Russian consulate in Hong Kong, even celebrating his 30th birthday there? What did those visits have to do with his departure for Moscow on June 23rd? Last, why has Snowden never left Russia, three years after his arrival?
These issues have taken center stage in the German parliament’s special committee of inquiry into NSA activities. Is Snowden really the whistleblower he claims to be? It is odd that anyone who claims to support press freedom and personal liberty would take extended refuge in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the population is much more tightly watched by the intelligence services than in any Western country, and where journalists who oppose the regime are harassed and even murdered.
Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s domestic intelligence service (the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution or BfV), has waded into this controversy by stating that Snowden is likely not who he pretends to be. “This would be an espionage operation joined with an operation for disinformation and influence,” he stated: “In order to drive a wedge between the USA and its closest allies, especially Germany.” That Snowden is in fact a Russian agent “has a high degree of plausibility,” Maassen added.
Predictably, Snowden’s defenders have pretended outrage at the BfV director’s statements, although he has made them before. Two months ago, in an interview alongside Gerhard Schindler, director of Germany’s Foreign Intelligence Service or BND, Maassen explained that it was likely that the American “whistleblower” was in reality a Kremlin agent whose actual agenda was harming his own country’s worldwide security partnerships – including with Germany — for Putin’s benefit. That the Snowden Operation has been very effective as disinformation against Western democracies goes without saying.
Such statements, taken as heresy by Snowden’s ardent fans, are uncontroversial among anyone who understands the secret world of espionage. To anybody acquainted with how Russia’s powerful intelligence services actually operate, the idea that Snowden is their collaborator is no more controversial than stating that the sun rises in the east every morning.
The proper espionage term for Edward Snowden is defector, meaning an employee of an intelligence service who takes up residence in another country whose spies are not friends. Since 1917, every single Western intelligence defector to Moscow has cooperated with the Kremlin, on grounds of quid pro quo. There is no known case of a defector not collaborating with the KGB or its successors. If you want sanctuary, you will tell the Russians everything you know. That is how the spy game works.
Any Russian intelligence officer who wants sanctuary in the United States will be required to collaborate with American spy services, including extended debriefings by multiple intelligence agencies. Are we really supposed to believe that Vladimir Putin, former KGB colonel, is more charitable?
“Of course” Snowden is collaborating with Russian intelligence, explained Oleg Kalugin more than two years ago. A legend in global spy circles, Major General Kalugin is the former head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate. In the Cold War, Kalugin recruited moles inside American intelligence just like Edward Snowden. He is an expert witness here. Kalugin made clear that Snowden’s new life revolves around the Federal Security Service, Putin’s powerful FSB. “The FSB are now his hosts, and they are taking care of him,” he explained: “Whatever he had access to in his former days at NSA, I believe he shared all of it with the Russians, and they are very grateful.”
To anybody familiar with how Russia works, there can be no doubt that Snowden has been an agent of the Kremlin at least beginning with his arrival in Moscow three years ago. Whether he was recruited by the Russian intelligence before that is likely – as I’ve explained before, it would be highly abnormal for the FSB to grant sanctuary to an American defector they have never met – yet it remains an open question, and a very important one. Whether Snowden has collaborated with the Kremlin since June 2013, however, is not an open question.
Since joining Twitter last year, Snowden has pontificated from Moscow on a wide range of issues. In rare form, he entered the debate regarding the NSA special committee, sending out this remarkable tweet yesterday. (It says: “Whether Maassen is an agent of the SVR or FSB” – that is, Russian intelligence – “cannot currently be verified.”) Challenging the BfV director head-on with a mocking tweet is a strange turn of events in the Snowden saga. Moreover, when did Snowden learn such good German? He’s never spoken it before, much less flawlessly.
All of this leads to obvious questions among anybody familiar with Putin’s Kremlin. Western security experts have suspected that Snowden’s tweets, at least on intelligence matters, are tightly vetted by the FSB. Which would be normal for any high-priority defector. Living under what Russians call a protective “roof” (krysha) provided by the FSB means a loss of personal freedom of the kind Snowden claims he cherishes above all else.
Either Edward Snowden suddenly learned excellent German or someone in Moscow is writing “his” tweets for him. Vladimir Putin himself speaks excellent German from his time with the KGB in Dresden in the 1980s and perhaps he does not wish to see the language mangled in public.
(This article appeared in the newspaper BILD in German, you can read that version here.)