No Use Crying Over Leaked Milk – Let Alone Threatening Sanctions Over It

My latest for Experts Panel/Voice of Russia:

The Panel states, “On future occasions, Russia might well require Washington to cooperate in similar circumstances; and if such is the case, its handling of the Snowden affair could prove decisive as to how Washington chooses to respond.”

Well, let’s imagine this scenario. One fine day, an FSB contractor named Eduard Snegirev takes a flight out to Dulles International Airport and proceeds to spill the beans – though as with PRISM and Boundless Informant, it’s pretty much an open secret anyway – on SORM-2 and how the Russian state spies on its hapless citizens. Would Immigration and Customs Enforcement turn him away? Would the FBI rush to honor a Russian extradition request on the basis of his violating Article 275 of the Criminal Code “On State Treason”? It is impossible to even ask this question without a smirk on one’s face.

Don’t get me wrong. It is entirely reasonable to agree to and honor extradition treaties covering “universal” crimes such as murder, rape, or – shock horror! – financial fraud (even if official London would beg to differ). But this approach breaks down when we get to “crimes” such as those of the real Snowden or the hypothetical Snegirev because it is not universal, but asymmetric and relational: Asymmetric because a traitor in one country is a hero (or at least a useful asset) in another, and relational because a traitor to some people is a whistle-blower to others.

Sergey Tretyakov, otherwise known as “Comrade J,” betrayed his sources and fellow agents in the SVR when he defected to the US in 2000. Yet on his death, many of the people discussing his life at the blog of Pete Early, his official biographer, called him a “patriot.” Not just an American patriot, mind you, but aRussian one as well – as if he had done his motherland a favor. They are free to think that but it will not change the fact that in his homeland about 98% of the population really would think of him as a traitor through and through. Or take Vasily Mitrokhin. In the West, he is overwhelmingly considered as a heroic whistle-blower, risking his life to chronicle the crimes committed by the KGB abroad. But he neither concealed the identities of Soviet sources and existing agents – unlike Snowden or Assange, nor did he reveal his documents to the entire world – opting instead to give them wholemeal to MI6. Nonetheless, demanding the repatriation of either one would be inherently ridiculous and only make Russia into a laughing stock – which is why it never even thought of doing so. No use crying over spilt (or should that be leaked?) milk.

The US, too, was usually reasonable about such matters, quietly accepting that their espionage laws have no weight outside their own territory and the territory of their closest allies – as has always been the case in all times and for all states since times immemorial. This is why the hysterics this time round are so… strange. While John “I see the letters K-G-B in Putin’s eyes” McCain is a clinical case, it’s considerably more puzzling to see similar fiery rhetoric from the likes of Chuck Schumer or John Kerry (although the latter soon moderated his tone). Such attitudes probably proceed from official America’s tendency to view itself as a global empire, not beholden to the normal laws and conventions of international politics. Now while its closest allies (or clients) might humor it in such delusions, even its “third-class” allies like Germany do not* – not to mention sovereign Great Powers such as China and, yes, Russia.

In any case, as far as the Kremlin concerned, it is now almost politically impossible to extradite Snowden even if it so wishes. Though they have been no official opinion polls on the matter, online surveys indicate that Russians are overwhelmingly against expelling Snowden. 98% of the readers of Vzglyad (a pro-Putin resource), and even 50% of Echo of Moscow’s readers and listeners (one of the shrillest anti-Putin outlets), support giving him political asylum. Apart from that, it would also destroy Russia’s incipient reputation as a sanctuary for Western dissidents – a great propaganda boon against the legions of Western commentators who vilify it every day as a ruthless autocracy.

To his credit, Obama seems to more or less realize this: He knows that he can’t issue orders to Russia or even Ecuador, and that it is not worth threatening sanctions or “scrambling jets” just to “get a 29-year-old hacker.” While the neocons and “American exceptionalists” will get their 15 minutes of blowing hard on TV and the op-ed pages, the episode is – and has been from the get go – likely to end in just one way: A quiet and untrumpeted retirement for Snowden in Quito, Caracas, or Barvikha.

* So what on Earth’s up with that anyway? Here is the most worrying theory I’ve been able to come up with:They actually take George Friedman seriously.


  1. I wasn’t surprised by Snowden’s revelations. Of course everything is being recorded. And he has no chance of changing that. Perhaps he’s naive enough to think that his leak can end up changing NSA’s practices. Or maybe he was subconsciously moved by the desire for fame.

    Publicity-wise this has been good for Russia. I haven’t spoken with any Americans who think that Snowden should be punished. The opinions about him that I’ve heard from real people here run from indifference to admiration. The millions of Americans who consider Snowden a hero are now watching Russia protect him. It’s a small PR win.

    • But you live in NY. Work in Manhattan. 🙂

      Personally, the most common refrain (both online and in real life) I’ve heard is whining to the effect that Snowden is a hypocrite for running away to evil China/Russia/Ecuador. (The concern trolling over Correa’s “authoritarianism”, which first began with Assange’s defection to its embassy, is also touching). My refrain is that even if we grant that those countries are authoritarian hellholes, Snowden specifically would still be a lot better off as a free man there than he would as an inmate in a US supermax. He is not trying to make himself out as any kind of moral authority personally, so I simply do not see any “hypocrisy” on his part in looking out for his own best interests.

      I entirely agree with you that what he revealed are largely banalities, but that it’s a PR win for Russia nonetheless.

  2. Many politicians in Europe are now demanding the cancellation or postponement of the transatlantic free trade talks. Perhaps Snowden leaked the last bits on the surveillance of European institutions specifically to that effect, after a polite Russian suggestion? I wonder.
    After all he conveniently leaked data on the spying of China precisely when he was in Hongkong..

  3. donnyess says:

    Americans want to read their “minority report”…if they’ve been backgrounded. A list of such persons and reports could lead to a class action against the US govt. Don’t count on Snowden or Assange to come up with the goods.

    Media organizations involved in this mess are not exactly noteworthy for their support of Putin or for bashing US/NATO. I expect the western media and wikileaks will morph Snowden into a “poison pill” propaganda foil against Putin as more of these banal revelations come out.

  4. “Personally, the most common refrain (both online and in real life) I’ve heard is whining to the effect that Snowden is a hypocrite for running away to evil China/Russia/Ecuador.” If only the hivemind that’s calling Snowden a traitor for fleeing to the SVO transit lounge with NSA ‘secrets’ could muster half as much rage at FEMA for inviting in the Russians, or at least — it now appears — having DHS troll patriot and militia types with the ‘Russians are doing security for the Super Bowl’ disinfo.

    Naturally the hivemind always blames those who fall for the disinfo across the web (tee hee, those stupid conspiracy theorists are at it again), not the Cass Sunstein disciples in the Obama White House and Department of Homeland Security who put it out. After all, Sunstein admitted that the best way to discredit conspiracy theorists would be to create his own:

    I wonder if an oligarch could arrange for a private jet flight to Abkhazia direct from SVO, so that he would still dodge Russian ground if not air space. After all the USA doesn’t even recognize Abkhazia as a sovereign state, so how can they demand Snowden’s extradition from a government that Washington pretends doesn’t exist? There are worse places to settle than by the Black Sea…

    • And before everyone jumps on the ‘conspiracy theorists’ popas, here’s the ORIGINAL press release from the Emergency Situations Ministry of the Russian Federation, at least before D.C. tells MChs to take it down:

      “In addition, the parties approved of U.S.-Russian cooperation in this field in 2013-2014, which envisages exchange of experience including in monitoring and forecasting emergency situations, training of rescuers, development of mine-rescuing and provision of security at mass events.”

      So…blame it on bad English translation, or it’s the DHS/Obama White House trolling the bitter clingers…again.

  5. The latest Putin’s stans on Snowden may seem a parodox. Putin don’t want Snowden to harm American interest… Hm… The whole thing is getting pretty clear if one consider what agency Snowden defect from – its NSA! As Sibel Edmonds and other whistleblowers stated for years he main role of NSA is gathering dirt on American political figures – from Congresspeople to presidential candidates to whoever (for the purpose of control)… Imagine that Snowden managed to download lots of dirt on every political figure in USA. Publication of these materials would obviously harm lots of big buys back home. That’s why everybody in Washington is this agitated. Obviously Putin would like to keep this dirt and use it rather than letting Snowden publish it through WikiLeaks or any other channel. Thus his statments…

    • Alex,

      I am reminded of the old slogan, “Russia has no allies but her army and navy.” As unfortunate as it is, there are good reasons for that…look up the Greek word Orlifka (if I’m reading the Greek right from my Cyrillic):–within-grasp-and-without-a-shot-fired-putin-can-reverse-300-years-of-russian-mistakes-in-the-mediterranean-2013-3

      Sure you have the Napoleonic and World Wars where Russia played a decisive role in bleeding the central European aggressor but those seem to be more the exception rather than the rule.

      On the positive side, I don’t expect too much from Putin. He is still a politician, after all, not the martyred Tsar.

      But yes, I would love it if Snowden somehow accessed the domestic kompromat files the NSA maintains to back up Russ Tice’s claims that NSA stands for National Stasi Agency (you can make a national security argument that the private lives of those briefed with sufficient clearance MIGHT need to be monitored to prevent a foreign power from blackmailing, ha ha, but that argument won’t fly for obscure Illinois State Senators in 2004 unless Barack Hussein Obama really was an Agency man and Agency diaper baby in which case Wayne ‘crackpot’ Madsen is vindicated). It would blow apart the last lingering arguments of the Fake Right National Security State bots/paid trolls and a certain hivemind that has clashed with our host here. Unfortunately for Snowden if he ever leaked the NSA’s kompromat files he’s as good as dead even if he eventually finds refuge in Abkhazia. I’m convinced either Abkhazia or South Ossetia is Putin’s fallback plan should sneaking Snowden on a Russian cargo jet bound for Angola and then transatlantic to Venezuela fail.

  6. The search for Snowden has already caused its first embarrassing diplomatic incident:

    • All I can say Anatoly is that more than a year after we were banned from the hive mind we are still living rent free in their heads. Truly they fear the assault from the libertarian Ron/Rand Paul Right more than the usual Anons and lefties.

      Sure they despise Putin and Anonymous but the fiercest hate (and hence the most fear) is reserved for us ‘goldbugs, Paultards/Paulbots’. etc. But Putin has no incentive in bringing the whe rotten NStasiA blackmailing machine down.

      And to think the game has just begun since if any any slight Anon hack is enough to expose Booz Allen Hamilton’s criminal and civil complicity in limitless data mining on citizens, theoretically it is the contractors who represent the soft underbelly of lawfare against the NSA. Onward to litigating traitors to the Republic until they go bankrupt!

  7. I’ll let Mark Safranski, someone who actually has spent large amounts of time around active duty military and top US strategists as opposed to State and USAID bureaucrats, have a word here versus the three letter agency worshipping hive mind: