"A traitor is always useful," a Russian security service friend said to me while discussing NSA contractor turned defector Edward Snowden's arrival in his country.
Mr. Snowden has fallen into the open arms of Mother Russia, where he was greeted at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport by a Russian security service contingent. The plan reportedly was for Mr. Snowden to pass through Russia en route to another country, after sharing America's stolen secrets with Hong Kong authorities. As luck would have it, not only does Mr. Snowden lack the visa required to set foot on bona fide Russian soil, but his American passport has been canceled as a result of Espionage Act felony charges, rendering him a fugitive. One man's travel fiasco can easily become another country's golden opportunity for an exclusive "interview."
Officially, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman originally knew nothing about any of this. Unofficially, I'm sure the Russians are making Mr. Snowden comfortable during this little stopover, offering our reluctant hero a shoulder on which to cry and spill out all the secrets in his little heart. If Russian officials know one thing, it's the art of subversion. In other words, they're well aware that the most effective cages are the ones without bars that provide the illusion of freedom. Mr. Snowden won't be detained in Russia -- he doesn't have to be. They have conveniently become his oasis by virtue of logistics.
Is Mr. Snowden even remotely aware of this setup? Probably not. After all, we're talking someone who was shocked that the U.S. government passively mines and collects data. Sure, there are countries on earth that don't do that, but they mostly fall into the Third World category. Any nation that considers itself a high-value target worth protecting does precisely what Mr. Snowden objects to. But among these nations, there are some that would gladly exploit Mr. Snowden's naivety -- however nicely -- and propagate the illusion of benevolence.
How do you think Mr. Putin, a diehard Russian patriot and former KGB chief, views those with access to intelligence who steal and spill state secrets to foreign authorities? When 10 Russian deep-cover spies were rounded up in America in 2010, allegedly as a result of a Russian turncoat's tip, Mr. Putin said, "Just think of it. A person sacrificed his life and then some scum pops up to betray his people. Swine!" Imagine the level of respect he has for someone like Mr. Snowden.
Mr. Snowden may or may not have any intelligence of actual value to the Russians, whose intelligence capabilities rank among the world's best. Recent French celebrity tax refugee and new Russian citizen Gerard Depardieu could very well be of greater intelligence value than Mr. Snowden. I'm not joking -- France is widely considered one of the five hardest global espionage targets, along with North Korea, Iran, Russia and China. Offering tax refugee status, a passport and a Putin presidential love-up to a notoriously heavy drinker who has long enjoyed access to the highest levels of French society and government is a wise investment in foreign intelligence -- even beyond the psychological-operations coup that the publicity around such a move represents on the world stage.
In any case, Mr. Snowden is rapidly approaching the classic profile of a defector. That is, someone with a security clearance and access to classified information, serving with an intelligence service, who flees to another country and allows foreign entities access to that information. The only thing new here is that previous defectors didn't try finding excuses for breaching the Espionage Act, or try to dress it up in altruism.
It used to be that a defector was limited to what he could stuff down his pants. This is Defection 2.0: Mr. Snowden reportedly is carrying four laptop computers' worth of information between multiple hostile intelligence jurisdictions that are, ironically, at least as adept as the National Security Agency at draining such data from personal devices.
Mr. Snowden still considers himself a "whistleblower," but he's fleeing a drama entirely of his own making. Hostile intelligence services see him as a willing and useful tool suffering from fortuitous delusion. They probably can't believe their luck, since defectors are usually pretty direct about wanting cash for information. But Mr. Snowden's self-perceived altruism makes him the Mother Teresa of defectors -- and Russia will only be too happy to receive his blessings.