Russian Media Reactions to Edward Snowden

June 26, 2013
(Reuters/Yves Herman)

Russian media outlets are reporting that Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor and National Security Agency employee, is spending his third day in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Moskovsky Komsomolets says Snowden is likely staying in a Japanese “capsule” hotel without windows to ensure privacy, and likens him to a legendary Indian who was said to live at Sheremetyevo for 10 years, as well as to the hero of the movie “The Terminal.” MK is surprised that no one has seen Snowden:

“Even on Twitter, in which in theory two or three witnesses of Snowden’s arrival at the airport should have appeared, there isn’t a single photograph or video. Perhaps someone decided to send journalists down a false trail? And along with them, Snowden’s enemies?”

President Vladimir Putin’s colorful comparison of the difficult problem of hanging on to Snowden reported by ITAR-TASS and other media was widely covered by Western press. There was less notice of the rest of his remarks, where the Russian leader said that both Julian Assange, WikiLeaks leader as well as Snowden considered themselves to be “human rights defenders,” a position he appeared to endorse by asking whether it was appropriate to jail them:

“Putin added that the Russian special [intelligence] services ‘never worked and are not working’ with Snowden. Speaking about the extradition of the CIA agent to the USA, Putin emphasized that Russia did not intend to give him up. ‘We can give a citizen up to a country with which we have the relevant international agreements for extradition of criminals. We do not have such an agreement with the US,” said the Russian president, adding that “in the territory of Russia, Snowden did not commit any crimes, thank God.”

“‘He [Assange], like Mr. Snowden, considers himself a human rights defender and is fighting for the dissemination of information,’ said the Russian head of state. Putin urged that the question be asked ‘whether such people should be turned over for imprisonment or not? In any event, I would personally prefer not to get involved in such issues,’ added Putin. ‘It is the same as trying to shear a piglet: there’s a lot of squealing and little wool. Let Mr. [Robert] Mueller [head of the FBI] and [Aleksandr] Bortnikov [head of the FSB] take care of this,’ he suggested.”

“‘Mr. Snowden is a free man and the faster he chooses his final destination for his stay, the better both for us and him,’ said Putin. In conclusion, the Russian head of state expressed hope that this situation ‘would not reflect on the business-like nature of relations’ between Russia and the US. ‘I hope our partners will understand this,’ said Putin.”

Putin’s feigned implication that the FSB would act independently without his involvement was hardly credible given the authoritarian rule Putin—a former KGB colonel—has exercised. More troubling was Putin’s cynical inversion of the very terms of his own crackdown on human rights groups in his own country.

Thousands of Russian non-governmental groups monitoring civil rights are now being raided by police or even closed under a new law requiring organizations said to be engaged in “political activity” who receive funds abroad to register as “foreign agents.” This week, Lev Ponomarev, a prominent rights campaigner, was beaten by police who evicted him and his colleagues from their premises, despite payment of the rent. While Westerners are speculating whether Snowden has actually or accidently become a foreign agent, Putin discounts any literal FSB relationship to the American fugitive, calls his domestic critics “foreign agents” and blesses Snowden as a “human rights defender.”

The Russian Federal Migration Service is happy to deport undocumented Central Asian labor migrants, yet when it comes to Snowden, as reports, the Migration Service “for now, does not see any basis for deporting the ex-CIA employee.”

Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin doubts that Russian intelligence has left Snowden alone, reports:

“‘He flies to Russia without a passport, he is located for days in the transit zone of the airport, then flies somewhere else, that is hardly likely for a normal person,’ says Oreshkin. ‘If the government agencies are interested in taking him somehow or helping him somehow, then they can close their eyes to the fact that his passport has been revoked and accordingly he is stateless.’”

“‘And as for Putin saying “it never was and never happened,” that is natural for a person with his biography. If something suddenly doesn’t turn out, he can then say that he was poorly informed.”

“‘The special services understand that this person knows a lot and that it would be useful to talk to him. Snowden is not a human rights defender, and in fact there is something to shear from him,’ believes Oreshkin.”

In a radio talk show devoted to Snowden, Aleksandr Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the liberal radio station and web site Ekho Moskvy, one of the few remaining independent media outlets in Russia, who himself has suffered surveillance of his own communications by Russian intelligence agencies, observes “We all live in glass houses.” Governments use the latest technology to keep tabs on citizens – and Russia has done exactly the same sort of thing as described in the US PRISM program, he notes.

Venediktov found the most disquieting aspect of Snowden’s trove of secrets not the fact that the US government has the capacity to monitor its own or foreign citizens just like Russia, but that a secret court had issued instructions for such eavesdropping that, in his view, violated basic privacy rights. That a court was involved in the legalization of these operations seemed to him to undermine the American ideal of liberty. In his view, citizens everywhere should demand that when intelligence agencies perform such surveillance, they should make a record of their actions so that it can later be presented in court if a person has been charged on the basis of the data collected by the NSA or FSB:

“I think that records as well as rules of behavior for special services are very important here. But when there is no record, then lawlessness ensues. Even so, we also have to keep in mind that the world has changed again, it has become completely glass, and not tin or wood, because the capabilities of the NSA and FBI in the US, and the FSB in Russia to monitor the Internet and citizens’ email with the help of electronic surveillance already exist, already exist technically and that means politically it is important. Because in this case, if Snowden did not work for another state and acted in the interests of his own state, I think that we have to support such people who act in the interests of their fellow citizens and try to protect their citizens from unfounded and unlawful eavesdropping and surveillance on the part of the state. That is essentially the point of Snowden, and not whether he is a spy or not.”

“And here, undoubtedly we have to discuss this situation more broadly. Because you and I are talking about journalists, and journalists are obliged to provide information and make public even what is negative about a government, this is an intelligence agent who most likely signed a pledge and most likely undertook a specific obligation, and what is more important for him, for such people — is it the pledge, the signature to keep state secrets or does he feel that these state secrets led to a violation of the rights of his fellow citizens by his own government? And if we acknowledge that Snowden is this kind of person, then we have to treat him with sympathy.”

Mikhail Dorfman, a Russian émigré writer and publisher based in the US writes in a blog post at that he met Snowden online in 2006 through Ars Technica, the online computer programmers’ news site and forum. He chatted with a person using the name TheTrueHOOHA, an alias said to be used by Snowden which he nevertheless linked to his real identity. Dorfman says he came across him while searching for help with ORACLE and encountering security obstacles doing business in an unnamed large American company. Dorfman believes Snowden is a hero:

“Various commentators have hurried to declare Snowden a traitor and a planted spy. I don’t believe that. TheTrueHOOHA was very open in our communications regarding the details of his own life. Unlike the majority of users, he gladly shared the details of his age and place of residence, he had conversations about girls he knew, about concerts, dances and restaurants where he spent time. I remember how during a discussion of some problems with delays in messages, Snowden dropped a remark like: ‘you don’t know, but perhaps the government is listening in on you.’ At that time, in fact, he was working for the National Security Agency and was involved in electronic surveillance in America. I got the impression that even several years before what has happened, Snowden knew that he was disclosing the secrets of government to people, that he might disappear into some kind of secret prison, and become an object of persecution, libel and even murder, and therefore created his detailed portrait online and tried to leave as many tracks as possible.
“The Internet has preserved for everyone not only the constructed online persona of Snowden, which of course could quite possibly turn out to be false. You can follow his trail on the web – from a teenager who quickly grew up to an adult very confident in himself. Professional spies and voluntary traitors don’t do such a thing.”