U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden has asked Russian authorities to help protect him after he received death threats disseminated in the U.S. media, his lawyer said Tuesday. This comes two days after several U.S. officials accused Snowden of being a Russian intelligence asset even before he found asylum abroad. The stage is set for the next round of intelligence and propaganda struggles between Russia and the United States.
The narrative surrounding Edward Snowden, a former contract employee of the National Security Agency, has evolved over the past eight months following his theft and disclosure of the NSA's surveillance programs. Initially, it sparked a debate over whether he was a traitor — particularly because he fled the United States to Hong Kong before leaping over to Moscow, where he was granted one year of asylum.
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But public sentiment has changed as revelations emerged about the surveillance programs that allegedly targeted millions of people around the world. The controversy and public anxiety over surveillance led U.S. President Barack Obama to propose changes to some of the NSA's surveillance policies. Snowden remains a divisive figure among the American public, with 45 percent praising his actions and 43 percent saying he caused the country harm, according to the latest Pew poll.
Anti-NSA and pro-Snowden sentiments have spread around the world. In a recent poll by Germany's ARD public broadcasting, 60 percent of Germans say they admire Snowden, though that number may be partly due to the revelations that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among the world leaders the NSA had been wiretapping.
The Russian propaganda machine has been in overdrive promoting such sentiment, knowing the surveillance issue is dividing the American people as well as the United States' partners abroad from Washington. Moreover, Russia is currently projecting itself as the protector of civil liberties and freedom of communication by sheltering Snowden, turning the tables on the United States, which frequently criticizes Russia's record on civil liberties.
But now the narrative is changing again after several U.S. politicians on various Sunday political talk shows accused Snowden of having been a Russian mole even before he fled the United States. House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers said, "I believe there's a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow. I don't think that's a coincidence." He added "It's like having the janitor at a bank who figures out how to steal some money deciding matters of high finance. This was a thief who, we believe had some help — who stole information the vast majority of which had nothing to do with privacy."
The congressman is trying to not only discredit Snowden as a civil liberties hero but also make Moscow look like the perpetrator all along. While none of the lawmakers has provided any evidence that Snowden was working with the Russians to leak the information, the accusations are part of the propaganda and intelligence struggles between the United States and Russia, with each attempting to shape their position and ability to project power in various regions around the world.
To that end, Russia had several successes over the past year. Moscow garnered most of the credit for preventing a Western-led military intervention in Syria and starting negotiations between Syria's factions. Also, the way in which Washington handled its "red line" on Syria has prompted regimes around the world to wonder whether Washington actually has the resolve and competence to pursue its foreign policy agenda. Now the United States is trying to retake the reins on the Syria negotiations taking place in Switzerland this week by deciding who can attend.
Russia and the West (including the European Union and United States) have collided over the past three months about the future direction of Ukraine. Russia won the first bout by pressuring Kiev not to sign trade agreements with Brussels. Currently, a second bout is taking shape in Ukraine, with a fairly popular Western-backed opposition leader and protesters staging continuing demonstrations against the Ukrainian government.
Also recently, Moscow's role in the international talks on Iran's nuclear program has been sidelined, with the United States taking the lead once again. But Russia isn't sitting idly by. Rather, it is spinning the discussion on a possible opening with Iran to its advantage by calling for an end to U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense in Europe — plans principally designed and justified as a system that would protect against ballistic missiles originating from Iran. Eliminating this potential threat removes the need for ballistic missile defense systems, according to Russia.
All of these moves and countermoves by Moscow and Washington around the world are continuing to strain U.S.-Russian relations, with each trying to expand their influence while attempting to paint their opponent as the threat.