Edward Snowden’s elaborately staged press conference at Sheremetyevo Airport on Friday culminated in his renewed request for political asylum in Russia, if only to enable his eventual flight to Latin America. So far, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have all offered him asylum (in Venezuela’s case, the offer was legally certified), but it nonetheless must have sounded strange to the representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in attendance as the former NSA contractor said, “These nations, including Russia…have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless.” These words were uttered 24 hours after Russia convicted a dead man for the crimes he himself exposed, and weeks after the Moscow offices of both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were raided by Russian authorities.
Snowden’s professed belief that he has not “partner[ed] with any foreign government to guarantee [his] safety” must mean that he thinks he’s sailing aboard a pirate radio ship in international waters instead of sitting in a heavily invigilated transport zone of a mafia state, his travel to which was certainly pre-approved by Russia’s security sector, in whose custody he now finds himself. Vladimir Putin himself has described the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor as a “Christmas present”, while publicly making the condition of a Russian asylum appeal contingent on Snowden’s agreement not to further release classified information that would “harm” the United States. Amnesty’s Alexei Nikitin has rightly pointed out that Friday’s press conference—which was absent any real journalists but featured a handpicked selection of human rights monitors—was designed by the Putin regime to lend the impression that “Snowden’s asylum application will yield a positive result.”
Adding to the theatrics and further complicating his claims of independence is Snowden’s avowed affiliate: WikiLeaks, an organization whose fugitive founder Julian Assange has shown no compunction about releasing the names of Afghan “informants” who might be killed by the Taliban, employed a deranged anti-Semite to compromise Belarusian dissidents to the Lukashenko regime, and currently hosts a television show on a Russian state-funded propaganda channel. For someone who claims to be engaged in a moral crusade against runaway surveillance and possible violations of the Fourth Amendment, Snowden has sought the succor of state and non-state apologists for much worse than the National Security Agency has got up to.
Throughout the course of this month-long global affair, equal parts Le Carré and MTV, Snowden has behaved as though he has no real knowledge of what espionage entails, or why his former colleagues in American intelligence would now have cause for serious alarm at his seeking of refuge in Hong Kong and Moscow. His denials of complicity with foreign powers cannot be taken at face value. Moreover, as Time’s Simon Shuster has shown, there’s a good chance that even if Snowden were truly opposed to disclosing to his Russian hosts any U.S. government secrets contained in the four laptops he travels with, there still are ways for those hosts to make him a Kremlin agent without his consent or knowledge.
It is simply not plausible that Vladimir Putin’s Cheka has left Snowden alone. According to the Jamestown Foundation, citing an anonymous Russian intelligence official, Snowden is not living in any airport but is being kept in a konsperativnaya spets dacha, or Moscow safe house, controlled by the FSB. “Snowden will not go from here anywhere, we believe,” the source told the NGO. You may also draw your own conclusions from the fact that the Russian lawyer aiding Snowden’s asylum case is Anatoly Kucherena, the head of a pro-Kremlin think tank, the chairman of the Interior Ministry’s public oversight committee and a member of the FSB’s “public council.”
Journalists who have abandoned their professional skepticism of Snowden, his methods and his motives would do well to revisit the case of another leaker once heralded as a champion of transparency and civil liberties: Philip Agee, the rogue CIA agent who published scores of names of covert U.S. operatives from Europe to Africa. History hasn’t been kind to the initial assessments of Agee as a brave “whistleblower” and speaker of truth to power. Indeed it didn’t take too long for Agee to quite clearly reveal himself as a Soviet operative.
In their landmark work of Cold War scholarship, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Christopher Andrew and former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, based on classified documents Mitrokhin smuggled out of Russia, quote Oleg Kalugin, the former head of the KGB’s Counter-intelligence Directorate (FCD), who said that Agee first approached Russian intelligence in Mexico City in 1973 with “reams of information about CIA operations.” The KGB rezidentura in Mexico City initially suspected a plot, however, and turned him away. Agee then went to the less discriminating Cubans, and Castro’s government shared everything Agee had given it with Moscow. Thus began a long, fruitful relationship between a former American spy and a very gratified KGB, which hadn’t even gone to the trouble of recruiting him.
Agee would later claim in his memoir, On the Run, that he had no intention of offering himself up as the most prized Western turncoat to the Russians; he only wanted to assist revolutionary Marxist-Leninist groups in Latin America in their resistance against Langley’s intrigues, which shamefully consisted of propping up murderous anti-communist juntas. Agee’s exposure of American-facilitated atrocities might even have been noble, if he hadn’t have put American lives in danger, but he could not legitimately claim to be a spokesman for democracy and human rights. He was a KGB asset (codenamed PONT), a fact which should have been obvious to anyone who consulted his 1975 interview with Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger:
The CIA is plainly on the wrong side, that is, the capitalistic side. I approve KGB activities, communist activities in general, when they are to the advantage of the oppressed. In fact, the KGB is not doing enough in this regard, because the USSR depends upon the people to free themselves. Between the overdone activities that the CIA initiates and the more modest activities of the KGB there is absolutely no comparison.
Agee’s approval of the KGB’s “activities” was self-congratulatory. The same year in which he made those remarks, he published Inside the Company: CIA Diary, which carried a 22-page appendix disclosing the names of 250 covert American agents and officers. The KGB file on Agee, as cited by Andrew and Mitrokhin, alleges that the book was “prepared by Service A [the elite ‘active measures’ branch of the FCD] together with the Cubans,” a claim the authors characterize as exaggerated. Nevertheless, Agee himself admitted that Cuba’s Communist Party—in reality, agents of Castro’s Dirección General de Inteligencia (DGI)—offered “important encouragement at a time when I doubted that I would be able to find the additional information I needed.”
Inside the Company had to be published in London, where Agee relocated in the early 1970s owing to the legality of exposing undercover U.S. operatives in the United States. The book became an instant bestseller. Then, as now, the British press was the vehicle of a former intelligence agent’s celebrity, a vehicle that bisected any established lanes of ideology or political tendency. The Economist (certainly no commie rag) called the book “inescapable reading” and the Speccie ran a review by Miles Copeland, the former CIA station chief in Cairo, that called Inside the Company “as complete an account of spy work as is likely to be published anywhere.”
As they have done with Julian Assange and as they are now doing with Edward Snowden, large swathes of the British media and political establishments canonized Agee as a heroic dissident dedicated to exposing a criminal superpower. That he made common cause with a reactionary dictatorship in order to do so was of no material concern. His book was an opening salvo in what swiftly became a fusillade of spy-outings. Here are Andrew and Mitrokhin:
With enthusiastic support from a number of journalists, Agee then set about unmasking members of the CIA London station, some of whom were surprised emerging from their homes by press photographers. An American theater director staged a production satirizing the Agency in front of a number of CIA officers’ houses. ‘For a while,’ claimed Agee, ‘the CIA in Britain was a laughing stock.’ The left-wing Labor [sic] MP Stan Newens promoted a Commons bill, signed by thirty-two of his colleagues, calling for the CIA station to be expelled. Encouraged by Agee’s success in Britain, there was a rush by the media in other parts of Europe to expose the CIA stations in their own capitals.
Those who rightly understood Agee to have been a threat to national security were vilified. In 1976, Britain’s Labour government led by James Callaghan, acting at the strong urging of Washington, ordered the deportation of Agee. The KGB facilitated a campaign to pressure the British Home Office, trade unions, legislators, journalists and Labour Party Executive to force the order’s rescission. The National Council of Civil Liberties organized rallies in Agee’s defense throughout Britain, and Agee himself embarked on a speaking tour of the country’s main cities. Newens led a delegation of more than fifty of his fellow MPs to meet with Home Secretary Merlyn Rees.
By 1977, Agee had lost his appeal to have the deportation order overturned, but a motion introduced by two former Labour ministers and backed by 150 MPs was put forward in the House of Commons to reform the appeals procedure altogether. Agee was expelled anyway, along with young American journalist Mark Hosenball, who had worked for Time Out magazine and arranged for the publication of Agee’s material in London. (Hosenball is today a correspondent for Reuters and has excellently covered the Snowden affair.)
The KGB file on Agee noted with self-satisfaction: “Campaigns of support for PONT were initiated in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Holland, Finland, Norway, Mexico and Venezuela.” The Guardian, of course, was fully behind this darling of the international left, and the Mitrokhin archive apparently did little to revise this assessment in the broadsheet thirty years on; Agee’s obituary in The Guardian in 2008 simply recycled the myth of a romantic “whistleblower” fighting the malevolent United States.
While Andrew and Mitrokhin observe that Russian intelligence was by no means “direct[ing]” Agee’s solidarity campaign, it “doubtless did not occur to the vast majority of Agee’s supporters to suspect the involvement of the KGB and DGI.” Also doubtless, it did occur to many of them, who simply didn’t care.
Following his expulsion from Britain, Agee embarked on more direct cooperation with the KGB in waging an information war against Langley. In 1977, he published a genuine copy, said to have been sent to him by an “anonymous” source, of a State Department circular signed by Henry Kissinger, which stated the CIA’s “key intelligence questions” for fiscal year 1975. Agee’s source wasn’t anonymous; it was Service A. The next year, he and a group of his admirers starting putting out Covert Action Information Bulletin, a proto-WikiLeaks-style publication intent on furthering, as it grandly announced, “a worldwide campaign to destabilize the CIA through exposure of its operations and personnel.”
The Bulletin was not only founded “on the initiative of the KGB”; its editorial team, which included Washington attorney Bill Schaaps, his wife, and journalists Ellen Ray and Louis Wolf, was assembled by the FCD Directorate K (KGB counterintelligence). The group was collectively known to Moscow as RUPOR. The Bulletin’s inaugural issue was launched at a Cuban press conference in Havana in 1978, at which event Agee also distributed copies of his newest book, Dirty Work: The CIA in Western Europe, which he had co-authored with Wolf and which exposed another 700 CIA agents operating on the free side of the Iron Curtain. Andrew and Mitrokhin write, “There is no evidence in Mitrokhin’s notes that any member of the RUPOR group, apart from Agee, was conscious of the role of the DGI or KGB.”
So important were Agee’s leaks to the KGB’s aqueduct of counterintelligence and “active measures” against its American counterpart that an entire task force was created by Service A and Directorate K, headed by V.N. Kosterin, to keep the Bulletin’s pages stocked with tidbits, even if only cobbled together from open-source material. At the KGB’s behest, the Bulletin suggested that the Jonestown massacre—the mass suicide of 900 religious cultists in Guyana—was actually a covert CIA operation. In 1979, Oleg Nechiporenko of Directorate K and A.N. Itskov of Service A furnished Agee with more names of CIA agents, these working in Africa, because Agee and Wolf had started work on a sequel to Dirty Work focusing on U.S. espionage there.
Agee claimed that he and RUPOR collectively outed about 2,000 American spies. The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee noted in 1980, “The professional effectiveness of officers who have been compromised is substantially and sometimes irreparably damaged. They must reduce or break contact with sensitive covert sources and continued contact must be coupled with increase defensive measures that are inevitably more costly and time-consuming.” The following year, Agee’s American passport was revoked, forcing him to travel on foreign ones issued by Grenada, then under the control of Maurice Bishop, and Nicaragua, then run by the Sandinistas.
In 1982, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act was passed, making it illegal for anyone in possession of classified information to reveal the names of covert operatives. (Strangely, Agee, who until his death in 2008 divided his time between Hamburg and Havana, was able to travel back to the United States without incident.)
According to one high-ranking Cuban intelligence defector, Agee received $1 million from the DGI—money that originated from KGB coffers—for which he ran tasks on behalf of the Communist regime. These included posing as a CIA Inspector General in 1989 to try and “pry secrets out of a female staff member” of the Agency’s station in Mexico City, as the Los Angeles Times phrased it five years later. A CIA case officer apparently recognized Agee and the operation went bust, although Agee got away before formal charges could be brought against him. Agee denied he was ever a “Cuban agent,” though he certainly was a committed travel agent for Havana, having founded Cubalinda.com, a website that arranged for Americans to exploit loopholes in the embargo and travel to the Communist island. (Starter packages for a summer holiday of actual existing socialisme ran about $600—a bargain compared to Sandals or Club Med.)
Much has been written in recent weeks about refraining from turning Edward Snowden into the real story and keeping our eye firmly affixed on the NSA’s disregard for the privacy of its own citizens. This argument has merit, though it would have even more if Snowden had not chosen to make the story all about himself, first by seeking refuge in authoritarian states hostile to the United States, then by rendering moral judgments about those states solely on the basis of how they have treated him.
Is he simply a fool to believe that Vladimir Putin has “earned the respect of the world” for welcoming a former U.S. intelligence contractor onto Russian soil with reams of classified security documents? (Perhaps we should ask the family of Sergei Magnitsky, or Alexei Navalny whether the Putin regime deserves our respect.)
Is Snowden so desperate to avoid capture by Washington that he will prostrate himself in this way, in the confidence that his many admirers and cheerleaders will extend to him the benefit of every doubt and not bother to question the very questionable stagehands now surrounding him? Or is he a knave who knows exactly what he’s doing and getting away with it with a little help from his friends? We cannot know the answer from the scant information available to us in media accounts. But if history is any judge, there should be no assumptions accorded to the good faith of ex-spies who wind up as wards of dictatorial regimes.