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Putin grants Russian citizenship to U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden

The former intelligence contractor was given asylum in Russia after he leaked secret files that revealed vast surveillance operations carried out by the National Security Agency.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

Whistleblower Edward Snowden has a new title: Russian citizen. 

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree Monday granting citizenship to Snowden, 39, the former U.S. intelligence contractor who was granted asylum in Moscow after he leaked secret files in 2013 that revealed vast domestic and international surveillance operations carried out by the National Security Agency.

U.S. authorities have for years wanted Snowden to be returned to the U.S. to face a criminal trial on espionage charges. Snowden said in 2019 that he was willing to return to the U.S. if he was guaranteed a fair trial.

Among Snowden's revelations were the NSA’s bulk collection of phone and internet metadata from U.S. users, its spying on the personal communications of foreign leaders, including U.S. allies, and its ability to tap undersea fiber optic cables and siphon off data.

Snowden’s lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that Snowden’s wife, Lindsay Mills, an American who has been living with him in Russia, will also apply for a Russian passport. The couple had a child in December 2020.

Moscow is mobilizing reservists for what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine. In Russia, almost every man is considered a reservist until age 65, and officials stressed Monday that men with dual citizenship are also eligible for the military call-up.

Snowden is a former systems administrator for the CIA who later went to work for the private intelligence contractor Dell, first in an NSA outpost in Japan and then in an NSA station in Hawaii. In early 2013, he went to work for the contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in the same NSA center in Hawaii.

While he was working for the contractors, he began downloading secret documents related to U.S. intelligence activities and partnerships with foreign allies, some of which revealed the extent of data collection from U.S. telephone records and internet activity.

Based on the Snowden documents, NBC News reported in 2014 that British cyber spies demonstrated a pilot program to their U.S. partners in 2012 in which they were able to monitor YouTube in real time and collect addresses from the billions of videos watched daily, as well as some user information, for analysis. At the time the documents were printed, they were also able to spy on Facebook and Twitter.

In late 2012, Snowden began to reach out to journalists, and in 2013 he leaked documents to The Guardian, Barton Gellman of The Washington Post and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.

The Pulitzer Prize board in April awarded its highest honor, the medal for public service, to The Post and The Guardian for their articles based on the documents Snowden provided. The award echoed the Pulitzer given to The New York Times in 1972 for its reports on the Pentagon Papers, the secret U.S. history of the Vietnam War.

The executive editor of The Post at the time, Martin Baron, said when the Pulitzers were announced: “Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service. In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight.”

Without the disclosures, Baron said, “we never would have known how far this country had shifted away from the rights of the individual in favor of state power,” adding: “There would have been no public debate about the proper balance between privacy and national security. As even the president has acknowledged, this is a conversation we need to have.”

But while some branded Snowden a patriot who exposed a dangerous erosion of constitutional protections, others called him a traitor for disclosing U.S. secrets. In fact, in 2016, The Post’s own editorial board opposed granting him a pardon.

While exposing the use of telephone “metadata” was in the public interest, “Mr. Snowden did more than that,” the 2016 editorial said.

“He also pilfered, and leaked, information about a separate overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, that was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy,” it went on to say. “Worse — far worse — he also leaked details of basically defensible international intelligence operations: cooperation with Scandinavian services against Russia; spying on the wife of an Osama bin Laden associate; and certain offensive cyber operations in China.”

Snowden was granted permanent residency in Russia in 2020 and said at the time that he planned to apply for Russian citizenship without renouncing his U.S. citizenship. He is one of 75 foreign nationals listed by the decree as being granted Russian citizenship.