The White House’s hopes for closure in the Snowden affair fade each passing day that the ex-U.S. intelligence worker last seen in Moscow’s airport, remains unaccounted for. His prolonged absence in Russia, where he fled from Hong Kong, threatens to wedge more space between Washington and Moscow at a time when the two countries need to work together over Syria. Meanwhile, the handling of Snowden by Hong Kong has already, in the words of White House spokesman Jay Carney, “unquestionably” had “a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.” Speaking Thursday, the president himself expressed frustration: “I have not called President Xi personally or President Putin personally and the reason is . . . number one, I shouldn’t have to.”
Snowden burst onto the world stage just as Barack Obama confronted Chinese leader Xi Jinping over China’s systematic theft of U.S. trade secrets through hacking at the summit in California. While Snowden’s decision of when to leak may be poor timing on his part, many in Washington suspect that Snowden isn’t the libertarian idealist he claims to be. Since then, questions about his motives and background have only grown. Snowden took the job at Booz Allen Hamilton in order to collect the data, he told Hong Kong media. The fact that Hong Kong refused to extradite Snowden because the U.S. got his middle name wrong on documents only fuels suspicion that China is not being forthright in its dealings here. And reports that as recently as four years ago Snowden may have been lashing out against other leakers raises the question: what changed?
One sympathetic ex-NSA whistleblower concedes that Snowden’s release of detailed information about intelligence operations outside the U.S. to foreign governments shows Snowden was “transitioning from whistleblower to a traitor.”
But that may be the point in this episode: a “whistleblower” who seeks protection from the U.S.’s two largest rivals, while releasing sensitive information on the U.S.’s foreign intelligence capabilities, muddles the picture. It tests the U.S. response, conflating domestic and international issues and matters of constitutional rights with the intelligence collecting capabilities of the U.S. abroad. It obscures Snowden’s motives while complicating not just prosecution but the discussion of what he’s done. While U.S. officials stress there is no “hard evidence” that Snowden is a Chinese agent, a glance at the externalities (for example: the summit, the ability to assure his safe escape from the U.S.) have the Feds “duty-bound” to probe in that direction.
Worse yet, China and Russia’s willingness to coordinate on Snowden’s movements to at least a minimal degree, show that Beijing and Moscow can cooperate when there is a shared goal, like, say gaining access to U.S. intelligence secrets while embarrassing Washington. In this affair, the Russians have taken a step closer to China, sharing the secret of what form of visa Snowden used to travel from Hong Kong to Beijing.
But Russia’s action may have a less global purpose, as well. “The more Russian leadership feels weak, the tougher it is — inside and outside the country,” argues Dominique Moisi in Les Echoes. “Today the effect is that it pushes the Kremlin toward authoritarian Asia, instead of democratic Europe.” Playing host to the fugitive American also works as a nice counterpoint to all the disturbing talk about corruption fighting lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who even, after his suspicious death in a Russian jail, continues to embarrass Russia and cause tensions with the West.
If Snowden is the whistleblower he claims to be, his idealistic motives are likely victim to geopolitical forces beyond his control, as Wikileaks ringleader Julian Assange would well know. Ecuador, which shelters Assange in its London embassy, had already rolled out the welcome mat to Snowden, only to roll it back up some and deny they facilitated his travel to Moscow. Wherever Snowden ends up is unlikely to be a libertarian paradise.
Already some interpret the inability of the U.S., through diplomatic pressure or its massive global surveillance apparatus, to apprehend Snowden as a sign of waning global U.S. influence. But the Justice Department’s decision to shed a little light on Hong Kong’s extradition process suggests the U.S. government, like their rivals, appreciate the new game: transparency as a tool for shaming.
The biggest fallout from the Snowden affair could be a surge of popular anti-surveillance sentiment in the U.S. Snowden has — whatever else he’s done — encouraged the U.S. public to demand answers about the surveillance systems growing and entrenching themselves in the twelve years after September 11. If it becomes clear, though, that U.S. has been punk’d by its geopolitical rivals China and Russia, even America’s libertarians may begin to re-evaluate an ideology that so disregards the American government that it justifies rewarding the authoritarian Chinese and Russian states. While this won’t cause a broad shift in American politics, it could help color the realignment currently going on in America’s right. This could be important as the U.S. maps out a new political platform for a globalized age.