Noon on January 20th provides an excellent opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to give President-Elect Donald Trump the perfect inauguration gift – Edward Snowden.
A reminder: Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, has been living in Russia as a guest of the Government there after he stole and made available to the public more classified information than anyone in the history of our republic. The disclosures that were related to one specific NSA program (the so-called Section 215 telephone metadata program) led to a public debate that resulted in some sensible changes, but the totality of the disclosures by Snowden caused substantial damage to the overall national security of the United States.
I witnessed this damage first-hand before retiring from the Central Intelligence Agency in late summer 2013. I saw for myself how the disclosures benefitted ISIS. Other former senior intelligence officials, in particular former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, have said the same. Current senior intelligence officials have testified before Congress to the broader damage done, and the 2016 bipartisan House Intelligence Committee Report on Snowden concluded that the damage caused was profound.
There are a lot of reasons why the gifting of Snowden would make sense to Putin.
The Russian President needs a relationship with the incoming U.S. President where the U.S. overlooks Moscow’s anti-democratic activities at home and destabilizing activities abroad in exchange for a partnership on issues where our interests overlap, such as on extremism. This would give President Putin one of the things he desires the most – being seen at home and abroad as an equal of the U.S. (which would be good for President Putin at home and for Russian influence abroad). The Russian President likely believes he has a chance to achieve that once President-Elect Trump is at the helm.
The best way for President Putin to take advantage of the opportunity would be to continue to build the personal tie that the two men have boasted via public accolades. What better way for President Putin to cement the personal tie than to give the President-Elect a high-profile gift — Snowden. At the same time, what better way for President Putin to poke his finger in the eye of his adversary Barack Obama than to put Snowden on a plane at the very moment Mr. Obama is no longer president? The parallels to the Iranian regime freeing the American hostages in January 1981 just after Mr. Carter left office are significant in this regard.
Why would Snowden be such a gift to President-Elect Trump? Multiple reasons. Most important among them, it would allow the soon-to-be President to publicly demonstrate, with reason, that his relationship with Putin and his new approach to Russia are paying dividends. It would similarly allow the President-Elect to show that he, in very short order, could accomplish something that President Obama and the traditional national security establishment could not. Finally, seeing Snowden arrive in the U.S. and placed in handcuffs would go far in healing the wounds that exist between President-Elect Trump and his Intelligence Community. The IC, more than anyone else, wants Snowden brought to justice.
I’m well aware that Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., but I am confident that President Putin is creative enough to find a way within his own legal system to deport Snowden. In fact, I’m certain of it.
To be clear, although I personally consider Snowden a traitor, I am willing to accept a jury’s verdict and, if guilty, a judge’s sentencing of him. I’m willing to allow our judicial system to decide whether Snowden is a hero for bringing to the public’s attention a program that indeed posed risks to civil liberties — but actually never violated any — or whether he is a traitor for broadly exposing national security secrets. Let’s let the legal system, defined by our Constitution, provide that answer.
The ball is in President Putin’s court. President-Elect Trump can encourage his Russian counterpart behind the scenes. What an opportunity for them both.