In an interview with American film director Oliver Stone four years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin had said that Edward Snowden was wrong to leak the United States government's National Security Agency's secrets.
"[But] Snowden is not a traitor. He did not betray the interests of his country, nor did he transfer any information to any other country that would damage his own people," he was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Putin, on Tuesday, 26 September, granted Russian citizenship, through a decree, to Snowden. He was granted permanent residency in Russia in 2020 and said at the time that he planned to apply for Russian citizenship, without renouncing his American citizenship.
The whistleblower's lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti that Snowden's wife, Lindsay Mills, an American who has been living with him in Russia, will also be applying for a Russian passport.
But why was Snowden in Russia in the first place? What secrets of the National Security Agency did he leak? Which media outlets published those secrets? And why did Snowden choose to flee to Russia?
Joining the Army, the CIA, and the NSA
Snowden was enlisted in the US army in 2003 as he wanted to join the Special Forces, but was discharged after he broke both his legs during training.
He then worked as a security guard at one of the NSA's secret facilities at the University of Maryland, after which he joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was sent to Geneva, Switzerland, and was responsible for maintaining computer network security, which gave him access to a large number of classified government material. This is when he started getting disillusioned with the government and how it functions.
In 2009, he left the CIA was assigned to a functioning NSA facility at a military base in Japan. For three years, he observed the surveillance activities of the NSA and tried to raise his concerns internally but was ignored.
Finally, on 20 May 2013, he flew to Hong Kong and within a month leaked thousands of classified NSA documents to four journalists of the The Guardian and the Washington Post – Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman, and Ewen MacAskill. That is when he became internationally known as a "whistleblower," a "hero," and a "traitor."
The files leaked by Snowden showed that the NSA collected the telephone records of millions of American customers from a telecom provider called Verizon Communications. This was backed by a top secret court order.
Leaking the Files and Media Disclosures
While the exact size of Snowden's leaks continue to remain unknown, government officials estimate that he leaked to the media:
At least 15,000 Australian intelligence files
At least 58,000 British intelligence files
About 1.7 million US intelligence files
The first media disclosure was The Guardian's exposé of the top secret court order showing that the NSA collected phone records of 120 million Verizon subscribers. The second was by the German publication Der Spiegel which revealed that the NSA had spied on multiple European Union and United Nations diplomatic missions in New York. The same publication also asserted that the NSA had also spied on the Al Jazeera by tapping into its internal communications systems.
Then, for ten years between 2001 to 2011, The Guardian revealed, the NSA had collected huge amounts of email and internet usage data of American citizens. Additionally, according to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, the agency spied on emails and calls of millions of Brazilian citizens.
Based on the list compiled by international non-profit digital rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the full cache of leaked documents were published by many media outlets worldwide, like The New York Times (United States), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Der Spiegel (Germany), O Globo (Brazil), Le Monde (France), L'espresso (Italy), NRC Handelsblad (the Netherlands), Dagbladet (Norway), El País (Spain), and Sveriges Television (Sweden).
Snowden on the Run
On the run after he leaked the files, Snowden realised that Hong Kong was not a safe place because it has an extradition treaty with the US. The Justice Department had formally charged him for espionage and theft of government property, which could give him 10 years in prison. The US government even revoked his passport.
WikiLeaks, which was apparently aiding Snowden evade extradition to the US, had stated at the time that he was, from Hong Kong, "bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum." That safe route was Moscow, and his movement was restricted at the transit area of the Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport because his US passport had been canceled.
On 1 August, after being in the transit section for 39 days, he left the airport and was granted temporary asylum in Russia for a year. After a year and six days of his one-year temporary asylum expiring, Snowden's Russian lawyers announced that he had received a three-year residency permit.
"The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia. I had a flight booked to Cuba onwards to Latin America and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in the Moscow Airport," the American whistleblower had said in an interview with NBC News.
Nevertheless, many have pointed out the irony of a transparency activist continuing to seek refuge in a country that is far less free than the United States. For instance, news anchor Maria Makeeva of a Russian independent television channel called Rain TV said, "If you are looking for a country which is more free than the United States, Russia would not be your next choice, I think."
But Snowden seems to have acknowledged this himself, telling NBC News, "It's really frustrating – for someone who's working so hard to expand the domain of our rights and our privacy – to end up stuck in a place where those rights are being challenged in ways that I would consider deeply unfair."
He has also alleged that the US government tried hard to make sure that he didn't leave Russia.
"Why did the US government work so hard to keep me in Russia? We don't have a clear answer, and we may never have that until more people in the Obama administration start writing memoirs, but it's either that they panicked or they realised that this would be an evergreen political attack where they could just use guilt by association, people's suspicion of the Russian government to try to taint me by proxy," he was quoted as saying by NPR.