Monday, January 30

Putin grants Russian citizenship to US whistleblower Edward Snowden

Whistleblower Edward Snowden has a new title: Russian citizen.

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Monday granting citizenship to the 39-year-old former US intelligence contractor who was granted asylum in Moscow after leaking secret files in 2013 that revealed vast domestic and international surveillance operations carried out by the National Security Agency.

US authorities have for years wanted Snowden returned to the United States to face a criminal trial on espionage charges. Snowden said in 2019 that he was willing to return to the US if he’s guaranteed a fair trial.

Among Snowden’s revelations were the NSA’s bulk collection of phone and internet metadata from US users, spying on the personal communications of foreign leaders including US allies, and the NSA’s ability to tap undersea fiber optic cables and siphon off data.

Snowden’s lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti that the former contractor’s wife, Lindsay Mills, an American who has been living with him in Russia, will also be applying for a Russian passport. The couple had a child in December 2020.

Putin’s decree comes as Moscow is mobilizing reservists for what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine. In Russia, almost every man is considered a reservist until age 65, and officials on Monday stressed that men with dual citizenship are also eligible for the military call-up.

Snowden was a former systems administrator for the CIA who later went to work for the private intelligence contractor Dell, first inside an NSA outpost in Japan and then inside an NSA station in Hawaii. In early 2013, he went to work for contractor Booz Allen Hamilton inside the same NSA center in Hawaii.

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While working for the contractors, he began downloading secret documents related to US intelligence activities and partnerships with foreign allies, including some that revealed the extent of data collection from US telephone records and internet activity.

Based on the Snowden documents, NBC News reported in 2014 that British cyber spies demonstrated a pilot program to their US partners in 2012 in which they were able to monitor YouTube in real time and collect addresses from the billions of videos watched daily, as well as some user information, for analysis. At the time the documents were printed, they were also able to spy on Facebook and Twitter.

In late 2012, Snowden began to reach out to journalists, and in 2013 he leaked documents to The Guardian, Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.

The Pulitzer Prize board in April awarded its highest honor, the medal for public service, to The Washington Post and The Guardian for their articles based on the documents provided by Snowden. The award echoed the Pulitzer given in 1972 to The New York Times for its reports on the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War.

The then-executive editor of The Washington Post, Martin Baron, said when the Pulitzers were announced, “Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service. In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight.”

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Without the disclosures, Baron said, “We never would have known how far this country had shifted away from the rights of the individual in favor of state power. There would have been no public debate about the proper balance between privacy and national security. As even the president has acknowledged, this is a conversation we need to have.”

But while some branded Snowden a patriot who exposed a dangerous erosion of Constitutional protections, others called him a traitor for disclosing American secrets. In fact, in 2016, The Washington Post’s own editorial board opposed granting the whistleblower a pardon.

While exposing the use of telephone “metadata” was in the public interest, “Mr. Snowden did more than that,” according to the 2016 editorial.

“He also pilfered, and leaked, information about a separate overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, that was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy,” it went on to say. “Worse — far worse — he also leaked details of basically defensible international intelligence operations: cooperation with Scandinavian services against Russia; spying on the wife of an Osama bin Laden associate; and certain offensive cyber operations in China.”

Snowden was granted permanent residence in Russia in 2020 and said at the time that he planned to apply for Russian citizenship, without renouncing his US citizenship. He is one of 75 foreign nationals listed by the decree as being granted Russian citizenship.

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