I’ve previously written about Edward Snowden, including two critical stories published here last fall. The first on September 30, 2016 was called “The Left and Edward Snowden: An infantile disorder,” and the second a week later, “Edward Snowden: Man vs. Myth.” (And yes, I know the KGB no longer exists but its better known than the FSB, its main successor agency, and so I’m using it in the headline.)
The first noted that much of the left uncritically fawns over Snowden and said that while it wasn’t clear that he was originally played by Russian intelligence, there was no question that he now effectively answers to Vladimir Putin. “I don’t know if Snowden understood the rules when he got there, but I’m sure he understands them now,” one former CIA case officer told me. “It’s pretty simple. Whether he was told directly or not, Putin let him know the deal: ‘You can live here and help us out or we can send you home. Do you have any questions’.”
It also raised questions about Snowden’s relationship with the Russian government and intelligence agencies. Among other things, I wrote, it’s curious that his local attorney, who represents him pro bono, “is a political supporter of Mr. Putin’s and serves on the Public Chamber, an advisory body that critics have long derided as a Potemkin construct of actual government oversight” and “serves as a member of another board that oversees the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B.”
The second story said, “Snowden did certainly reveal information that exposed serious abuses and started, to some extent, a national conversation about surveillance and the NSA. But the narrative that he is an altruistic saint has become an article of faith on the left, akin to what the 2nd Amendment is on the right.”
Both stories raised the possibility that Snowden was played, unwittingly, by Putin from the outset and the fact that he ended up in Moscow was no coincidence. That is certainly a plausible if unproven theory, though it’s one his adoring fans refuse to even entertain.
I intended to write a third story — this one — in the following days, which would argue that there was a good chance that Putin did play Snowden, but I pulled back because I didn’t feel comfortable pushing that argument based on what I knew at the time. I still don’t want to make that case flat out, but I do think it’s a real possibility and various other credible analysts believe it’s a fact. And so I want to discuss the subject now as Snowden — “I used to work for the government. Now I work for the public,” he says on Twitter — continues to enthrall liberals, racks up a fortune in speaking fees — check out this page at All American Speakers bureau — and lives under Putin’s thumb in Moscow.
Most interestingly, I want to share the views of various former intelligence officials and other experts — and these are not right-wing zealots and Trump apologists, though dippy lefties think anyone who has worked for a U.S. spy or national security agency is a war criminal and idiot. None claimed to know for certain but many think Snowden was unwittingly recruited by Russia before he fled the United States and they talked about how it would have happened if it were true.
They unanimously agreed that if Putin recruited Snowden, he was ensnared by a honeypot — a woman, not a Russian but probably a Western asset of Russian intelligence — who seduced him and subtly but effectively prodded him to steal secrets. “The question is, how do you incentivize the nerd?,” one person with extensive experience in Russia and intelligence matters told me.” This person added, “The Russians aren’t going to ever admit that he was recruited if it’s true, because if he was played he has no value. He’s no longer a heroic whistleblower but a KGB dupe. His propaganda value evaporates.”
Honeypots have long been used by spy agencies, and during the Cold War both the U.S. and Soviet Union employed them, the latter more frequently. For an interesting look at honeypots, read this February 2012 study by James Welch, “Behind Closed Doors: Sex, Love and Espionage: The Honeypot Phenomenon.” He writes:
Prostitution and espionage are often referred to as the world’s oldest two professions. While this might seem simplistic, there is much based on truth. Historically, both women and men have used charm and charisma as tools for enticing and entrapping their vulnerable counterparts. In no other domain has this been more so, than that of espionage and intelligence. It would be excusable to imagine that in today’s highly evolved and developed society that these last vestiges of the Cold War have disappeared. Nothing could actually be further from the truth.
I’ve written on espionage and the honeypot phenomenon many times over the years. Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote for Harper’s in 2007, “Sex and the C.I.A.,” which I’m quite fond of.
I recently received an advance copy of Seth Hettena’s “Feasting on the Spoils: The Life and Times of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, History’s Most Corrupt Congressman,”…which I highly recommend. In addition to being a terrific piece of political reporting, the book is filled with juicy details concerning the seamier side of the Cunningham affair, otherwise known as “Hookergate.”
I was particularly interested in stories Hettena unearthed about Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, whom former CIA director Porter Goss had named as executive director, the agency’s number-three official. Foggo resigned last year not long after FBI agents raided his home and office. The Feds suspected that Foggo, who was later indicted, had funneled CIA contracts to his long-time friend Brent Wilkes, the defense contractor who is accused of bribing Cunningham with money and prostitutes.
Some of the more sensational stories in Hettena’s book—and he has on-the-record sources—got me thinking. First, didn’t Foggo’s frequent indiscretions (for example, flashing his agency ID to jump the line at a strip club) raise red flags about his character? Second, wasn’t Foggo’s outlandish sexual behavior—like, say, publicly performing oral sex on a hooker (hired by Wilkes) at his own bachelor party—just the sort of thing that makes intelligence officials potentially vulnerable to blackmail by a hostile spy service? Third, might it be possible to cynically point to such revelations and use them as a hook for a blog item that combines sex and espionage?
You already know the answer to #3. As to #1 and #2, I spoke with a number of former CIA officers and asked them about the use of sex as a weapon of espionage…During the Cold War, the KGB (and allied services, including the East German Stasi under Markus Wolf, and Cuban intelligence) frequently sought to entrap CIA officers. The KGB believed that Americans were materialistic and sex-obsessed, and hence its spies could easily be lured with the prospect of an easy lay. CIA officers in Russia were strongly warned about “swallows,” the term for the beautiful women the KGB deployed to try to seduce Americans, which was a constant danger at Moscow station.
Sure, this story you’re reading at the moment also seeks to exploit sex and espionage to get clicks, but I’ve been seriously examining the topic for well more than a year. To repeat, I am not certain that Snowden was unwittingly recruited by Russia, but plenty of evidence suggests it and the idea can’t be dismissed. “It wouldn’t shock me if he was played by the Russians and it wouldn’t shock me if that’s just the way it worked out,” Mark Zaid, a Washington–based attorney who represents whistleblowers and who is highly critical of Snowden, told me. “I live on Occam’s Razor. It’s an open question that should be looked at.”
Coming in Part II: Did Russia recruit Snowden? The Honeypot scenario.