20130810_WWD000 Yeah yeah, yet more opinion.

So, Snowden has asylum in Russia. Naturally, he’s delighted to be out of his tedious airport, saying

in the end the law is winning.

But is it? Because the interesting thing is who is making the decisions: Putin. As the Graun says the decision was “almost certainly taken personally by President Vladimir Putin”. In Russia, that would be entirely natural: Russia is his persona fiefdom, and there is no rule of law – the law is whatever Putin happens to want it to be that day (Snowden also said I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations but that is, I think, just self-serving lies; so much for him as champion of truth). So why is Snowden, self-declared champion of freedum-n-mocracy, running to those two noted bastions of such, China and Russia? And the answer is obvious: because he doesn’t want to face the rule of law. Personally, I wouldn’t want to hand myself over to Putin as a pawn; that seems like a really dumb decision to me. But I suppose Snowden is desperate and will collaborate with anyone, no matter how shady, who can keep him out of the US.

But what do the Russians think they’re playing at? Putin gets to piss off the USA, which is always a really good idea as so many people have discovered in the past. In return for what? Some of Snowden’s cache of secrets? A bit of cheap publicity? It seems very odd to me.

Meanwhile, I hear you cry, what about the boost to democratic accountability from the secrets that Snowden has disclosed, thus permitting informed public debate? I’m glad you asked. Because in the Beeb article about the asylum, we find the same old disinformation we had at the start:

The systems analyst also disclosed that the NSA had tapped directly into the servers of nine internet firms including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to track online communication in a surveillance programme known as Prism.

We know this is wrong. We’ve known that is wrong for ages – since about a day after Snowden first said it. But we won’t get that disinformation out of people’s heads.

I’m ranting too much, I’ll start to sound like the Daily Mail if I’m not careful. Feel free to tell me so in the comments.

[Update: I have a couple of rather childish comments along the lines of “What exactly does the ‘rule of law’ have to do with the U.S.?” The US law certainly isn’t perfect, and they can be thuggish at times – for example, their attacks on BP after the gulf oil spill – but these comments are coming from people in the US who unthinkingly accept the protection of US law -W]


* PRISM: any substance?
* Let’s hope that Snowden doesn’t like Bloodhound gang (I do). Someone needs to tell the Russian prosecutors that they don’t own the Ukraine any more although perhaps such niceties are beyond them.

27 thoughts on “Snowden”

  1. I agree that Putin did this to piss of the US and, marginally, to appear to care about human rights to some. But I doubt his concern will go past this: he will shuffle the care and feeding of Snowden to low level functionaries who’ll keep him out of sight as long as necessary. In short: I think Snowden’s antics have resulted in his vanishing from the world scene. President Obama gets Snowmen quieted without having to soil his legal hands.


  2. “…because he doesn’t want to face the rule of law.”
    What exactly does the ‘rule of law’ have to do with the U.S.?


  3. Certainly pissing off the US is part of it. But asylum given is asylum that can be taken away, so perhaps he also views this as a cheap way to get a hole card he can play later? Exchange Snowden for some political gain later?


  4. I’m actually kind of cynically wondering if there was a back-door agreement between the US and Russia to keep Snowden there. Perhaps the US doesn’t really want to prosecute him and bring things into public view and think being exiled in Russia is punishment enough, but they will publicly pretend to disagree about this.


  5. > NSA had tapped directly

    Well, “bogus” depends on the meaning of “directly” — CO2 doesn’t directly cause more than one degree of global warming on average.

    Iit’ll be fifty years before anyone’s sure what really happened and what the results are in specific accurate detail. For either TLA.


  6. Apparently you have a belief system that adopts the tenet that the US government practices and believes in the “rule of law.”


  7. Eli:

    “How many western agents does Snowden know about?”

    As a glorified systems administrator? If the answer is “greater than zero” the entire management structure should be shot. And I say this as someone who opposes the death penalty.


  8. Hank Roberts:

    “Iit’ll be fifty years before anyone’s sure what really happened and what the results are in specific accurate detail. For either TLA.”

    I don’t think so. You do realize that his claims require physical access to datacenters and extensive, customized software support by each companies engineering teams, right? In an industry that is often frustratingly libertarian in the first place?

    I don’t buy it. And I’m in the industry and reasonably paranoid about the feds. But also realistic.


  9. Yes, it is all rather ironic, isn’t it? But then such matters often are… I strongly suspect the US would be more than happy to grant asylum to a Russian defector in similar circumstances, regardless of what laws he had broken in Russia.

    [I wonder. It is a good point though, that I ought to have though of for myself -W]

    As for what Putin is playing at, my usual assumption is that most things politicians do, they do for reasons related to internal politics. He’s pissing off the US because that plays well with the constituencies which allow him to maintain power.

    Whilst I agree that handing himself over to Putin isn’t a great idea, it’s probably still a better idea that the alternative, which – at best – almost certainly features a long sentence in penal conditions which most civilised countries would regard as inhumane.


  10. I love it when you comment on politics and economics William. Immediately overturns the theory that right-wingers lean to climate science denial.

    On Putin. There is also the possibility that giving it to the Yanks is still wildly popular in the USSR, sorry Russia.

    “The decision is backed by almost twice as many Russians as those against it and those who view Snowden’s role as positive outnumber negative assessments three to one.”


  11. [I wonder. … – W]

    Well, given that the US refused to extradite Luis Posada Carriles to either Venezuela or Cuba (on the grounds that he might be at risk of torture), despite his admitted involvement in a string of bombings in Cuba and very strong suspicions (to say the least) of involvement in blowing up a Venezuelan airliners, (not to mention his involvement in the Bay of Pigs affair, Iran-Contra, and an attempted assassination of Castro), and that they refused to extradite Warren Anderson to India to face charges relating to the Bhopal disaster for no good reason that I’ve ever heard… Then there’s this:, which looks like a pretty clear parallel.

    [I don’t think Posada is a good example. Wiki tells me “On September 28, 2005 a U.S. immigration judge ruled that Posada could not be deported because he faced the threat of torture in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government reacted angrily to the ruling, accusing the US of having a “double standard in its so-called war on terrorism”.[18] The US government sought to deport Posada elsewhere, but at least seven friendly nations refused to accept him”. I’m not familiar with the case, but that looks to me as though the courts were blocking what the administration wanted to do. Refusal to extradite on the grounds of torture aren’t odd; just look at the UK and wossisname just recently.

    Anderson. Again, don’t really know. Wiki tells me “He flew to India with a promise that he would not be arrested; however, Indian authorities placed him in custody. Anderson posted bail, returned to the US, and refused to return to India”. That does suggest that the Indian authorities couldn’t be trusted in this case. And it was enormously emotive. I certainly wouldn’t trust them to give him a fair trial. But this isn’t the right sort of example: you’re looking for people granted asylum, which WA wasn’t, he’s a “don’t extradite our own” -W]

    Many nations will refuse to extradite anyone to the US if there’s a risk that they might face the death penalty. Sure, the Russian move here is clearly political, but it’s not like they don’t have some legitimate cover. Snowden almost certainly does face a risk of treatment that most of the civilised world regards as torture (as is almost anyone else entangled in the US penal system), is unlikely to receive a fair trial, and may face the death penalty. (Whilst the death penalty is still technically allowed under Russian law, it has been indefinitely suspended by court order and has not been carried out since 1996. Yes, on this matter, even the bloody Russians are ahead of the US.)

    [The US has already promised not to apply the death penalty. And do you really think not-a-fair-trial is likely? -W]


  12. And do you really think not-a-fair-trial is likely? -W

    Well, it’s certainly not outwith the bounds of possibility. You know, given that he’s already been widely denounced as a traitor… Where are you going to find an unbiased jury?

    Anyway, the point isn’t really whether any of these concerns are real, it’s whether they’re arguably plausible. Like I say, I’m quite certain that the decision is political rather than principled – I doubt Putin could find a principle with a map and a torch, and if he did, he’d probably have it shot – I’m just pointing out that they have (at least arguably) legitimate cover for that political decision.


  13. dho,

    Snowden may not know the names, but he had access to a lot of stuff that probably includes meta information. Good enough for darts. And yesm a whole lot of people should be shot, and certainly fired.


  14. Eh, Putin is not Stalin, and not even Brezhnew. There is a beginning of rule of law for people not stepping on the wrong toes, and a beginning of free media subject to the same constraint. Putin needs popularity and understands the game: I’m pretty sure this asylum decision is popular. Few Russians like the U.S.


  15. The amusing question about Putin is how far in the closet he is, which makes the whole thing about the Olympics hilarious.


  16. > backdoor-code stuff. If its there, it can be found.

    That assurance surprises me. I’d read “Reflections on trusting trust” long ago. Has that been shown to be wrong?

    [We’re not talking about source code, so all that doesn’t matter. It would be a matter of reverse engineering the images. Trojans in the microcode I hadn’t thought of, but you can be sure the NSA have -W]


  17. “It would be a matter of reverse engineering the images.”

    And in recent years, a fair amount of money has been spent on automating this process. In the commercial world, to help with the analysis of and countermeasures to computer viruses. NSA and fellow spook organizations undoubtably doing as much or more.


  18. >> be sure the NSA have …
    > as much or more …

    Well, yeah. So they’re presumably a little ahead of anyone else at creating as well as at finding such stuff?

    Like Jef’s piece above points out they’re doing it wrong. Imagine if they’d use total information awareness to give us the names and addresses of the robocalling crap merchants and scambots as well as to send the security guys after the potboiler terrorists….


  19. Hard to be sure from the quoted passage, but “the law is winning” could be a broader reference to Congress making the first moves toward cracking down on the NSA as well as some of the foreign intelligence cooperation implications.


  20. Oh, good grief. Your preferred example of US government lawlessness is some criticism of BP after the gulf oil spill?

    [No. They are welcome to criticism. What I was talking about was their extra-legal suspension of the in-law limits on liability. Do you know what I mean? I can dig out refs if I must -W]

    My recollection is that at the time you were remarkably anxious to defend BP from criticism … but even ignoring that, surely there are more significant examples, like, I dunno, interning Japanese-Americans in camps during WWII or meddling in Latin America or whatnot.


  21. Subject-matter expert speaking here.

    Re. “agents.” Zero, because NSA does not have “agents.” That word itself has different meanings in different agencies:

    FBI: an “agent” is an employee of the Bureau, and a “source” is a civilian who is not an FBI employee but who provides information to an agent.

    CIA: a “case officer” is an employee of the agency, and an “agent” is a foreign national who is not a CIA employee but who provides information to a case officer.

    NSA has neither, because both of those usages refer to HUMINT, human intelligence, whereas NSA’s scope of action is SIGINT, signals intelligence.

    Something you haven’t read elsewhere:

    The original FISC order revealed by Snowden, was quite a bit more limited in its scope than the media have made it out to be. And the Obama Admin’s responses, that have been convergent with the media narrative about this, were deliberately taking advantage of the errors in that media narrative to avoid further analysis by the media that would have lead to a more accurate appraisal of that FISC order. The reason the Admin took this approach was to avoid broad publications of accurate inferences as to sources, methods, and targets.

    I can go into more detail to any responsible journalist who agrees to keep the details confidential and stick to reporting the conclusion. But to cut to the proverbial chase, the bottom line is that NSA’s activities are far more closely circumscribed than they have been made out to be, and are ultimately limited by the technology itself and the available person-hours of labor. If you’ve never done intel you have no idea what it’s like, but “drinking from a firehose” and “digging ditches 10 hours a day” are reasonable analogies.


    Though I substantially differ with the Obama administration on certain points, I trust NSA and the rest of the TLAs a couple of orders of magnitude more than I trust Google, Facebook, and commercial Big Data generally. Do you get to vote for Google et. al.’s management?

    Anyone who complains about the TLAs and uses Gmail, Google Voice, Facebook, and a smartphone, is either an idiot, a hypocrite, or delusional.


  22. Ironically, what Snowden exposed was Snowden himself. Or rather, the ubiquitous presence of the federal contractor in even the most delicate high level intel positions. As much as the NSA REALLY wants us to believe they have total control over the situation and the information that they DO have on tap is carefully controlled…Snowden proved COMPLETELY that not only do they have no idea what all that collected information is doing at any given point in time, but that virtually anyone who has physical access to computers on their system can simply extract information at will and export it OUT OF THE BUILDING unhindered. This to me is the worst possible scenario. Imagine all of the “taps” waiting to bribe the proper people to obtain information unlawfully or unethically. It’s bad all around. And the final insult is that the whole world now knows what fumbling buffoons we have for intelligence services.

    Privatize intelligence…brilliant.


  23. Re. FrankenPC:

    Buffoonery is the wrong word, and it leads to the wrong analysis.

    Even those of us who would prefer that Snowden get his proverbial day in court, have to admit that he apparently acted on the basis of strongly-held personal principles. His acts were not buffoonery, and unlike Bradley Manning, they were not the outcome of an unstable mind subjected to the manipulations of someone twice his age. He was quite clear about what he did and why, and it would appear that his reasoning is internally consistent.

    The problem there was not buffoonery, it was failure of enculturation. The USIC really is a “community,” it has a common culture, strongly reinforced, that begins with the principle of trust and its reciprocal obligation of secrecy. The USIC is not governed by the profit motive, and is not subject to the cultural attitudes and practical shortcuts and corner-cutting that are at once both strengths and weaknesses of the private sector.

    To be sure, privatization of military, intelligence, and law enforcement functions, is unacceptable for a number of reasons. Chief among these is that it creates perverse incentives that work against the intrinsic values that must necessarily govern the military, intel, and LE. But as well there are issues of practical compromises that can blow up in our collective faces, as we have just seen. And don’t even get me started about all the hardware and critical systems that are produced in countries (notably China) whose interests are not ours.

    Reforms are overdue on a number of fronts. But even as we seek to run a tighter ship, we must also provide legitimate channels for dissent and disclosure, such as an absolute right to disclose to properly cleared members of appropriate committees in the House and Senate, without any risk of adverse consequences.

    These are not easy problems, and their solutions require objectivity and clear-headedness.


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