In Snowden, a forthcoming graphic biography of Edward Snowden by political cartoonist Ted Rall, Rall shares new details of Snowden’s escape and refuge in Russia after leaking NSA data to the press. Below, EW presents these revelations exclusively, in advance of the book’s Aug. 25 publication, alongside commentary from Rall.
People have wondered if China let Snowden leave although his passport was invalidated by the US. Actually, there was no sneakiness by China. Snowden still had a valid passport when he left China. What happened was that the US State Department canceled his passport while he was in the air. He had been planning to transit via Moscow to Ecuador, but his passport was invalid by that point. That’s how he got stuck in Moscow: the Russian authorities couldn’t let him leave without a valid passport (and visa, if required) for where he was going.
Can Snowden ever leave Russia? Says Rall, “Snowden needs two things to leave Russia: an invitation from and/or visa to another country. Assuming he can travel internationally on his Russian-issued asylum document, he also needs a travel itinerary to that new host country that doesn’t pass over or transit through a nation that would arrest and deport him the United States. Practically speaking, it’s hard to imagine how he could manage that second feat. …. at one point he did have an invitation to travel to Ecuador. The problem was that he would have had to have flown over European countries that are US allies.”
The Obama Administration portrayed Snowden as a “29-year-old hacker.” Actually, he was a high-level systems administrator, a star, with very broad access to NSA and CIA digitized files.
We asked Rall why he thought the Obama Administration may have deliberately misinterpreted—or under-sold—Snowden’s expertise. “Hard to say,” Rall says. “Perhaps Obama was misinformed by people in his administration. Or they tried to diminish his credibility by dismissing his actions as those of an impetuous youth who hadn’t ever really been an ‘insider.'”
The pilfered data was probably moved on thumb drives from Hawaii to Hong Kong, not the famous four laptops everyone was talking about. The laptops were not used for data storage.
While we don’t know how many thumb drives Snowden used and transported, Rall says, “I’d guess quite a few. There’s a lot of data, including graphics, and thumb drives don’t hold that much.”
Russian FSB agents tried to flip Snowden as he waited in the transit lounge of the Moscow airport. A patriotic American, he refused.
According to Rall, the FSB agents probably weren’t swarming Snowden for the entire length of his stay: “Seems like it was once or twice, and not a hard sell but more of a ‘Hey, we’d be wrong not to try’ kind of thing. [But] Snowden would have to answer that himself.”
Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills moved in with him in mid-2014 and has been living with him in the Moscow suburbs since then.
We wondered whether had any trouble traveling to Russia—though Snowden has said (as you can see in the documentary Citizenfour that when he initially leaked the data and fled, he didn’t tell Mills anything so she couldn’t be implicated. “If that’s on the mind of US officials,” Rall says, “they haven’t done or said anything to indicate that they consider an accessory after the fact. There is no evidence, and I don’t believe, that she had any foreknowledge of Snowden’s actions before he fled Hawaii.”
Is there a chance they could ever move back? “The only ways Snowden will return to the US are one of the following: (1) He returns to face trial, fair or not; (2) The US government drops the charges; (3) Russia deports or extradites him.”
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