As Russian intelligence demonstrates ever more alacrity with American political and social disruption, we must remember that the great bear still has a major weapon in reserve that’s tailored for this purpose. Like many of Russia’s most destructive tools, this one is radioactive, and must be shielded to contain a field of mildly harmful emissions. It can be easily delivered between continents — and indeed, its very nature makes it a precision weapon aimed squarely at American democracy.
Edward Snowden is widely believed to be one of Vladimir Putin’s more successful gambits. The ex-Booz Allen security contractor may tweet the occasional criticism of Putin’s surveillance state, but it’s generally acknowledged that that’s a small price to pay to make the US look foolish and impotent around the world. By keeping him in public view, Russia can make sure that past US transgressions remain near the surface of the global consciousness, and visibly put the lie to any narrative about the omnipotence of American power.
Both of these virtues are fading quickly in importance. The NSA has, at this point, entirely weathered the PR nightmare of the Snowden leaks, and Americans have fully embraced the idea of cyber security agencies with an aggressively preventative mission statement. And, to put it mildly, Snowden is no longer the most high-profile example of American political and security overreach.
So the question becomes: At what point will Snowden’s virtues cease to outweigh his faults, from the perspective of Russian PR and desinformatsiya? The answer: whenever the reborn KGB decides his return could do the most harm to American political unity, its standing around the world, and perhaps do large amounts of splash damage against a third party as well.
Consider the choice of Julian Assange to be their unthinking mouthpiece for anti-Democrat cyber-espionage. As easy as it would have been to simply post the emails under a Fancy Bear-style hacker group pseudonym, or just throw the whole thing up on PasteBin, the choice was instead to use a well-known surrogate whose involvement in the case would complicate any political resolution. By using Assange as the most visible source for the leaked emails, the exact same content can be made to generate a totally different sort of headline.
Snowden carries this same inherently disruptive power, greatly magnified. The media circus of a Snowden return (even, if not especially, a highly secretive return) would pressure certain portions of the American political world more than others. By releasing Snowden to the US with the media’s knowledge, Putin could instantly create tension between any sitting Democrat and the left wing of their own party. It could bring the issue of American surveillance and jurisprudence back to the fore.
It would also force America either to persecute a widely beloved figure via widely distrusted laws, or to opportunistically fold to pressure and let Snowden walk. In the increasingly likely event of a Clinton presidency, this would be doubly effective, as the trial would force her to persecute a figure with wild popularity among specifically those voters she most needs to impress. All the Kremlin needs to give up to achieve this is the exceedingly well-wrung political dishrag that is Edward Snowden, finding some pretense (or perhaps not even bothering with a pretense) to revoke his right to remain in Russia.
As Snowden and his media surrogates have been eager to point out, the whistleblower’s three pending charges under the Espionage Act technically mean he is not entitled to a jury trial — if he were to return to the United States, he would mount a much more limited defense to a judge, who would then pronounce him guilty, probably loudly. The verdict is a foregone conclusion; getting him in the courtroom is all that really matters.
Think about the mechanics of such a trial. Upon arrival in the US, he would immediately be spirited away for secret, solitary confinement, feeding the conspiracy movements that have taken root in Europe and parts of the United States. Snowden is too well known for the trial to play out entirely in secret, even if much of the content remains hidden; every mundane decision, from the selection of the judge to the inclusion of various pieces and forms of evidence, would be fodder enough for online White House petitions and ACLU press releases. Portions or the entirety of everything — the evidence, the testimony, probably even the wording of the verdict itself — will be redacted, unnecessarily feeding fears of government overreach to hide information that is likely well known already, and certainly known to Russia, China, and Iran.
A period of good relations between the American people and their security services could be undercut by a juicy, high-profile show trial — or better yet, by an even juicier, invisible shadow-trial. By that point it will be far too late to consider any sort of executive action to prevent the trial from going forward.
If the Snowden issue is to end as anything other than a problem for America, Snowden must to be allowed to return home without coercion, at a time when there is no meaningful pressure to allow it. This could take the form of a pardon or, as Snowden himself has suggested, the proffer of a simple jury trial with a much less certain outcome. Either way, a willing deescalation is the only thing short of assassination that could rob Putin of this powerful, one-use force multiplier for political chaos.
Obama has staked something of a claim to Snowden hate, making it clear that, so long as your name isn’t famous, his most very best favorite laws are the ones that stop people from knowing about what their government is doing. But the next President, regardless of their party, has no such legacy to uphold. By far the most prudent, security-conscious way forward is to defuse Putin’s political weapon and bring him home. The fact that this would signal a real willingness to submit to public oversight, and potentially start to heal the government’s relationship with its ever-larger left-wing population, is just icing on the cake.