A Talking Head

For the past several years, Edward Snowden has only seemed to have existed to the Western world as an enigmatic talking head on a TV screen being interviewed “somewhere in Russia.” But, according to The Washington Post, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Snowden Russian citizenship this past Monday. He has been living in exile since 2013 and obtained permanent residency status in 2020 after applying for a Russian passport.

Snowden does a TED talk as a telepresence robot
Snowden gave a TED presentation as a telepresence robot in 2014. Screenshot from YouTube and TED

As a recap to the one or two of you who may be wondering why Ed Snowden has been hanging out in Russia for the better part of the last decade, I’ll bring you up to speed. He’s wanted in the United States, and if returned here, he’d be arrested on espionage charges. Specifically, according to a 2013 WaPo report, the charges against him are “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.”

I’ll admit that Snowden has had an extremely interesting past. However, he is not like past Americans charged under the Espionage Act, like Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer who became a KGB double agent and sold intelligence to the Russians. Ames is now doing life without the possibility of parole at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana. Why such a stiff sentence? Because the information Ames sold led to the execution of at least ten intelligence sources valuable to the United States.

To the best of my knowledge, Snowden never sold classified information for money; he provided it to journalists and news outlets. A 2016 movie about the whole affair was titled “Snowden.” Not a bad film, in my humble opinion. Joseph Gorden-Levitt looks and sounds spookily like Ed Snowden. He could be his brother or something.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt describes how he “became” Ed Snowden. Video footage from YouTube and Vanity Fair.

Snowden is brilliant and damn near a genius, but he never graduated from high school. He missed almost an entire year due to mononucleosis, so he decided not to return to class and just took the GED instead. After that, he took some courses in community college. His father and grandfather were both military officers, and he felt an urge to serve as well, so, in 2004, he became a Special Forces candidate through the Army’s 18X enlistment program. Unfortunately, in the course of intense training, he developed stress fractures in the tibia of both of his legs and could not continue.

His next job was as a security guard for the National Security Agency, or NSA. He held that position for under a year. For that type of position, you need a high-level security clearance, and part of that is taking a polygraph test. However, Snowden wasn’t content to be a security guard, and after attending a job fair for intelligence agencies, he got an interview with the CIA and received a job offer. His lack of formal training wasn’t a problem as he was what most lay people would call a “computer wizard.” As part of his CIA training, he was sent to six months of classified training for Agency technical specialists.

In 2007 he worked for the Agency in Switzerland, maintaining network security of their computer systems. This gave him his first taste of what the government was capable of looking at regarding the average individual. This was somewhat disconcerting to him, and he resigned from the CIA in 2009 to work as a contract employee for Dell. In this capacity, he became familiar with the government’s mass surveillance programs and began acquiring tens of thousands of documents to prove the extent of the program. These documents made up most of what he would later turn over to the press.

Snowden has never considered himself to be a spy but rather a whistleblower. He contends the mass surveillance program was illegal and all he did was expose a crime. He has often said that he’d return to the US if he felt he’d receive a fair trial. Today, it seems unlikely that he’ll return anytime soon. His wife, Lindsay Mills, has applied for Russian citizenship as well. The two were married in Moscow in 2017 and have two children.

Will He Be Subject to Mobilization?

Snowden’s attorney, Anatoly Kucherena, says that he will not be subject to the partial mobilization that Putin has desperately put into place to help support his faltering “special military operation” in Ukraine. Only men with prior military service were to be called. But wait, he does have prior military service, albeit with the US military. That presents a somewhat unique situation. Still, there’s not a snowball’s chance that Snowden will be called to serve in Ukraine.