At last word, Ed Snowden is still in the Moscow Airport, possibly getting a little stinky after two weeks of sponge baths in airport washrooms, probably dyspeptic after two weeks of airport meals, and probably reflecting on the watchword of international politics: countries don’t have friends, only interests.
Here’s a little speculation on how he got into this pickle.
It’s clear that he’d developed a political interest in electronic intelligence collection at some point, and he’s said that he moved over to Booz-Allen Hamilton specifically to get access to more and different information. As I’ve said elsewhere I suspect that he got into a system administrator position where he eventually got “system high” access — probably a UNIX system and he was a root user. This means that you have access to any file on a system, all powers are granted you — that’s why a root account is called the “superuser”. In secure systems it’s more complicated, but the fact is that maintaining a really secure system has a lot of annoyances and eventually someone ends up with really high privileges.
But what have we seen of that information? He’s told a bunch of stories to Glenn Greenwald, and he’s leaked the PRISM slides. But there wasn’t a lot of information on those PRISM slides that hadn’t been known before except for particular code names on particular programs; and in fact the slides, while marked TOP SECRET, have been redacted (look for unlabeled black blobs.)
Now, with the friends and interests point in mind, think about places Snowden might go for asylum. The big ones, Russia and China, and little ones like Ecuador (which has its own problems with Julian Assange cluttering up its guest rooms). I’m sure it is a big surprise to note that these places aren’t going to grant asylum out of the goodness of their hearts; they’re looking for a straight trade, a quid pro quo. Oh, Evo Morales in Ecuador might go for it just to poke the USA, but Russia and China know that there will be a string of annoyances following granting Snowden asylum and they have to balance those against what they get out of it.
This is where Snowden stepped on himself.
There’s no question that this information is of intelligence value — we’ve looked at some of that in my PRISM article. If nothing else, he’s released those program names, which someone in Russia is even now correlating with other words they’ve heard in other intercepts. He claims to have four laptops and a bunch of thumb drives full of information as well.
I think he’s talked it up too much, out of a need for self-aggrandizement. If I had to bet, I’d bet that he and the ballerina girlfriend had broken up or were close to breaking up, and he decided to do something to become a Hero and either get her back or at least Show Her. So he talked up his access to levels that would be astonishing if true, but that frankly don’t ring true, and made himself a cause celebre by telling his tall tales to another self-promoter with an slippery relation to the truth, Glenn Greenwald.
Now, anyone who gives him asylum is making a big investment; it’s a big poke in the eye for the USA, and to Obama personally, who has shown, let us say, a certain mean-spiritedness about what he sees as personal attacks. It wouldn’t mean war, it wouldn’t even mean any dramatic long-term effects, but it would mean some coldness, some nasty notes flying back and forth.
So then the Chinese get a look at what he’s carrying, and they say, hey, this isn’t worth the trouble. They let Snowden “accidentally” slip out of Hong Kong to Russia because of a “bureaucratic slip-up”.
Snowden arrives in Russia, and at first Putin seems to be inclined to help — then he cools on him, finally saying that if Snowden wants to stay he’s got to stop leaking information about his great friends to Americans. My guess? They also got a look at Snowden’s information and realized that a chance to look like Obama’s friend was worth more than the information.
Considering how little Putin seems to care about being Obama’s friend, this may tell us how little real intelligence is in those laptops and thumb drives.
Emmett Kelly’s famous tramp-clown character was known for a “Weary Willie” bit where he’s looking for something to eat and a place to rest for a moment, and finally can’t even eat from a cat’s bowl. Ed Snowden may be in the process of establishing himself as this generation’s Weary Willy, without a home, without a passport, and unexpectedly without enough intelligence in his pockets to buy a flop and a cup of coffee.