Snowden wasn't a Russian agent, but a traitor just the same
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I have to admit that I was surprised when a friend contacted me to tell me that Edward Snowden used a clip of an interview that I did with Chris Inglis, former deputy director of the NSA, in an interview of him at South by Southwest.

For some reason, Snowden does not want people to think that he was a Russian agent, and Inglis's comments support that belief. That being said, it is important to realize why this is incredibly irrelevant.

Snowden using valuable time during an interview to contend he was never a Russian agent is an example of him trying to confuse his actions. It in no way changes the damages caused or the crimes committed. It might matter in how he is prosecuted, but it has no bearing on any significant aspect of his crimes.


Specifically in espionage terminology, an agent is a person who provides information to an operative. An operative is what most people consider to be a spy. Human intelligence operatives work for an intelligence agency with the primary responsibility of finding people with access to desired information, and convincing those people (operatives) to provide the information to them (agents).


The agent might or might not be aware that he or she is providing information to a foreign spy depending upon how the operative approaches the agent. An operative is much more of a puppet master than a James Bond.

Many operatives are under diplomatic cover, but some operatives are also under what is referred to as non-official cover (NOCs). Valerie Plame, whose cover was blown by the George W. Bush administration for political retribution, is an example of a NOC. She worked for a variety of front operations around the world, but had primary responsibility to gather information.

Regarding Snowden, Inglis stated during the interview that Snowden's actions were too haphazard to be planned, implying that Snowden was not an official Russian agent. However, the fact that Snowden was not an agent in no way changes the fact that he intentionally committed espionage and treason, and can therefore be considered a traitor. The fact he asked for asylum in Russia makes him a defector.

And for the record, he is not stuck in Russia as he can just walk to the U.S. embassy and turn himself in. (Also, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a passport to American actor Steven Segal. I'm sure he will give Snowden a passport as well, if he asks.)

Remember, Snowden has specifically stated that he applied for a job at Booz Allen so he would have better access to steal information. That is a clear statement of planning and intent to target and steal information. While it doesn't matter whom his intended customer was, the fact he chose to go to China to turn over information to a third party — when he had the opportunity to meet journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras anywhere else in the world — speaks to his intent.

Snowden's haphazard actions might demonstrate he wasn't an official Russian agent, but the impact was the same. The distinction doesn't matter. Now, anyone with minimal knowledge would have plotted a cleaner defection. But just because he was not good at it does not mean he is not a traitor and defector.

I will, however, add that the fact that Snowden was not a Russian agent before leaving the U.S. doesn't help him, but it is stupid of him to highlight this. In the world of espionage, even members of Russian intelligence agencies would not have much respect for him. While they welcome abusing his status and information, Snowden is a traitor and defector to the espionage world as a whole. He would be perceived as being willing to betray them even quicker than he betrayed the United States.

There is a generally accepted unofficial rule that intelligence agencies do not extradite foreign agents who defect to them. Even despite the lack of respect, they don't want to discourage future agents from working with them. Snowden has excluded himself from such protection, though, so anytime Putin wants to hand Trump a big win, he can hand over Snowden without violating protocol.

So no, Edward Snowden might not have been a Russian agent. But he is a Russian stooge, and a traitor and defector by default.

Ira Winkler is president of Secure Mentem, a security awareness company. He is one of the foremost experts in the human elements of cybersecurity and the author of several books, most recently "Advanced Persistent Security." He has previously worked for the National Security Agency and served as president of the Internet Security Advisors Group, chief security strategist at HP Consulting and director of Technology of the National Computer Security Association. He has also served on the graduate and undergraduate faculties of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. He and his work have been featured in a variety of media outlets including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle and Forbes, among others.

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