Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor and whistleblower who leaked a trove of classified National Security Agency secrets to journalists, never quite made it to Ecuador. His attempt to avoid extradition and prosecution by U.S. authorities hit a snag in Russia back in 2013 where he claimed political asylum and has been stranded ever since.
Now, Snowden is making it official: He and his spouse Lindsay Mills obtained permanent residency in Russia last month and are now seeking dual citizenship with Russia and the U.S., according to the Washington Post. In a tweet, Snowden explained that the switch isn’t motivated by any switch of allegiances or desire to distance himself from the U.S., but is instead necessary to ensure that he and Mills can raise their as-yet-unborn son.
Lindsay and I will remain Americans, raising our son with all the values of the America we love—including the freedom to speak his mind. And I look forward to the day I can return to the States, so the whole family can be reunited.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) November 1, 2020
Almost all foreigners seeking Russian citizenship were previously required to renounce their citizenship of other nations, but the Russian government eliminated that requirement in May 2020. For Snowden, his current status as a permanent resident will greatly simplify the process.
According to the Guardian, Snowden lawyer Anatoly Kucherena told Interfax that “Edward has asked me to assist in filing his application for Russian citizenship… Edward has told me that their baby is expected to be born in December; considering that the baby will be entitled to Russian citizenship by the birthright, he also wants to be a citizen of Russia.”
Snowden is facing several felony charges under the Espionage Act in the U.S. for revealing numerous NSA domestic surveillance programs, including PRISM, illegal “bulk collection” of Americans’ phone records, as well as intelligence-sharing agreements with foreign countries to dodge legal limits on surveillance of U.S. citizens. The charges which the government has already brought against Snowden carry a combined maximum sentence of 30 years.
The odds of Snowden facing trial largely depend on whether the U.S. has a chance to nab him; the U.S. intelligence community and federal authorities clearly still have a grudge against the whistleblower and consider him one of their most wanted fugitives. Last year, the Department of Justice successfully sued to confiscate all profits from sales of Snowden’s book, Permanent Record, because it wasn’t cleared by the CIA or NSA.
Donald Trump has floated the idea of pardoning Snowden. But the president seems broadly unfamiliar with who Snowden is and he has more typically used his pardon powers to spring his political allies.
Snowden has evinced no particular fondness for Russia beyond quips in his book that the cold weather and the accompanying heavy clothing allows for a higher degree of surreptitiousness, according to the New York Times. He has said he sought asylum in 27 countries, of which Russia was not his first choice. Snowden also insists he destroyed all means of access to classified material before ever leaving Hong Kong and that he is not working with Russian intelligence, as his U.S. critics have often alleged.
In 2019, Snowden told NPR that Russian security personnel had sought his collaboration when he first arrived in the country, but that he rejected any such arrangement and the only reason the Russian government has protected him is because it’s effectively free PR. (It’s not clear what intelligence value Snowden would still have left anyhow, as one of his primary difficulties in Russia is being easily recognisable in public.)
“You have to look at the basic facts. If you look at my public presence … I’m constantly criticising the Russian government’s policy, the Russian government’s human rights record, even the Russian president by name,” Snowden told NPR. “I had nothing to provide them. I have been criticising the Russian government. What more can I do to satisfy you or any of these critics? There is nothing that will satisfy them… It is their distrust of Russia.”
“… No one becomes a whistleblower because they want to,” Snowden added. “No one becomes a whistleblower because it has a happy ending.”