It might sound strange, but has Wikileaks been infiltrated by Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, the post-Soviet successor to the KGB? Based on media accounts and first person testimonies, there are signs that Edward Snowden’s flight to Russia, eventually seeking asylum there, was organized by Russian intelligence. So was his defection a Russian intel op?
Answering that question can be difficult — after all, none of the parties involved would simply announce such a thing. Moreover, Snowden seems to have made the decision to leak his cache of documents independently of any sympathy with Russia. Nevertheless, the chain of events leading up to Snowden’s flight, and his decision in Hong Kong to flee to Russia, of all places, strongly suggest that Russian intel has co-opted him to a remarkable degree.
Wikileaks’ ties to the Russian government
Many people object to the idea that Wikileaks is not a “pure,” public-interest based organization. After all, that is the official line out of Wikileaks itself, told mostly by Julian Assange. But Assange has some curious ties to the Russian government that bear exploring.
Most obvious is his show on RT, the Kremlin-funded propaganda network. Called “The World Tomorrow,” its first 12 episodes featured a ragtag bunch of terrorists and lefties — and even endorsed Ecuadorian president Raphael Correa’s increasingly violent crusade to end free media in his country. Not coincidentally, Ecuador and Russia enjoy increasingly close relations.
Assange taped his show from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and has been offered asylum in Ecuador should he ever be able to leave without risking arrest from British authorities.
Assange got his Kremlin show after he threatened to publish embarrassing documents on Russia’s political elite in 2010, but relented after an FSB official hinted at violent reprisal against Wikileaks. Those documents were never published.
Months later, Israel Shamir, a Belarussian anti-Semite who publicly identifies himself as Wikileaks’ Russian-language representative, sent a tranche of documents about democracy activists to Belarussian tyrant Alexander Lukashenko. He was selling them for a reported $10,000.
Though Wikileaks denies even a connection to Shamir, former Wikileaks employees have written that their close association sparked controversy.
Wikileaks’ ties to Snowden journalists
After being repeatedly threatened in 2010, banks and credit card companies declined to process any donations for Wikileaks. By the end of 2012 Wikileaks was running perilously short on cash. A new U.S.-based group, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, launched with the explicit purpose of funneling cash to Wikileaks.
On its board of directors are Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the two journalists to whom Snowden chose to leak his documents. In an interview with Harper’s, Greenwald, the only human being followed by the Wikileaks account and a long-time defender and correspondent of Assange, says Snowden initially emailed him around the same time this foundation launched. He says he initially ignored them.
The next month, Snowden contacted Poitras. In an interview with Salon, she noted that her previous involvement with Wikileaks for a film had given her the knowledge to effectively use encryption to hide her communications from most forms of surveillance.
Still, being fellow ideological travelers is not evidence of any malign intent. But the close relationship between Greenwald and Poitras and Wikileaks shows why Wikileaks became involved so early in the Snowden saga.
Wikileaks co-opts Snowden
Snowden began downloading documents in April of 2012 — anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000. Working as a National Security Agency systems administrator, he had the ability to create false network accounts and impersonate others, even senior officials. Far from “brilliant,” as some anonymous sources call him, that is standard for a sysadmin.
Over the next few years, he used government money to finance his training as a hacker. Then, when Snowden took his job as an infrastructure analyst with Booz Allen, his duty was to probe network security for weaknesses, which would complicate any security review of his activity. He could explain away suspicious behavior as being his job description.
In a way, Snowden was the perfect infiltrator: trusted, technically savvy, strategically minded and thinking long term. He is a goldmine to any intelligence service interested in circumventing, spoofing, avoiding, defeating or delegitimizing American espionage.
Once he was outside the familiar world of IT and U.S. agencies, real world politics seemed to stump him. He was reportedly terrified of losing access to the Internet. He did not seem to have any real escape plan when he went public in Hong Kong — rather than fleeing immediately to a friendly consulate where he could seek asylum, Snowden instead made the inexplicable decision to travel to Moscow.
In Hong Kong, a series of events happened, one right after the other, that suggest a deliberate move by Wikileaks to deliver Snowden to Russia. First, Snowden revealed himself, through Poitras and Greenwald, as the leaker on June 9. The next day Assange publicly praised him as a hero, and Snowden checked out of his hotel to whereabouts unknown.
Then on June 11, Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin offered to consider his asylum request. On June 19, Wikileaks said it was offering Snowden “legal counsel” and helping him “broker” his asylum in Iceland.
At about the same time, according to a new article in Kommersant, Snowden was staying in the Russian consulate in Hong Kong (rumors say at Russia’s request), where he also celebrated his 30th birthday. On June 21, a Reuters story datelined in Reykjavik quoted Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson, an Icelandic businessman with close ties to Wikileaks, as saying he had prepared a private aircraft to take Snowden directly from Hong Kong to Iceland for asylum.
Yet on June 23 Snowden was on a flight to Havana through Moscow.
Snowden’s alleged selection of Cuba for asylum was a curious choice. If Wikileaks was “brokering” his asylum in Iceland, and a wealthy businessman had already offered private transport there, why wouldn’t he take it?
Although traditionally known as a haven for fugitives fleeing American justice, in recent years Havana has been much more amenable to extraditing American criminals. Under Raul Castro, Cuba has even made progress in re-opening migration between the two countries, a huge deal for both capitals.
The decision by Cuba to reject Snowden shouldn’t have come as a surprise, especially considering that Michael Ratner, a lawyer for Wikileaks and Assange, has been deeply involved in Cuban politics for a years. Maybe Cuba under Raul considered the thaw in relations with the U.S. more important than a single fugitive.
And if Snowden was trying to get to Havana, then the incident in which Bolivian Pres. Evo Morales’ plane was supposedly “grounded” in Austria makes little sense. Why would he be traveling to La Paz? Would Morales have conceivably been transporting Snowden to Havana on his way farther south?
Russian operation? The pieces fit
When Snowden landed at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow on June 23, Putin was surprised. “It was completely unexpected for us,” he told reporters. But it is difficult to square that statement with the Kommersant report alleging Snowden’s days-long stay in the Russian consulate — or even Putin’s statement earlier in June that he would welcome Snowden’s asylum.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Snowden’s decision to travel through Moscow was “very sudden,” happening under the advisement of Wikileaks. It also reported that Wikileaks said it was helping Snowden travel to Russia. Wikileaks even Tweeted it, dubiously describing Russia and Cuba as “democratic.” Izvestia reported that Russian intelligence operatives collaborated with Wikileaks to exfiltrate Snowden from Hong Kong to Moscow.
Upon his arrival at Sheremetyevo, Olga Bychkova, a host from the radio station “Echo of Moscow,” told Anna Nemtsova that she ”saw about twenty Russian officials, supposedly FSB [security service] agents in suits, crowding around somebody in a restricted area of the airport.”
“The Kremlin pretends they have nothing to do with him being stuck in Moscow,” she continued, “but in reality they’re all over him.”
After spending weeks with Sarah Harrison, Wikileaks’ mysterious “legal adviser” — who, according to Kommersant, arranged Snowden’s trip to Moscow — Snowden called a press conference filled with a mixture of human rights groups and Kremlin-funded officials to announce his decision to seek asylum in Russia.
After that press conference, he apparently reached out to Anatoly Kucharena, a Muscovite lawyer who also happens to sit on the Public Council of the FSB, which is selected and vetted by the head of the FSB.
Kucharena later told reporters he was responsible for handling Snowden’s money while he was stuck at the airport.
A brilliant op
From the public accounts, it looks like Snowden began as an earnest if misguided dissident looking to make his mark as a major leaker of national security secrets. But from the moment he arrived in Hong Kong, it is also clear that Wikileaks played a powerful role in shaping his decisions, behavior and even public statements — which is why the group has posted so many of them on its Website.
At the same time, Wikileaks’ long and growing involvement with the Russian government is also difficult to ignore — and the immediate co-optation of Snowden by FSB agents in Moscow makes the entire move look like a well-planned operation.
Pretending Wikileaks did not deliver Snowden to the FSB requires ignoring a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. It makes Wikileaks’ gratitude to the Russian people — and thus, government — seem almost farcical. It might also explain why the Russian siloviki union, which contains former Russian intel and military officials, offered Snowden money and support.
There’s also no question Wikileaks has profited handsomely from the affair. Just months after teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, in July the organization announced it was raising nearly a thousand Euros a day, which is close to its peak fundraising in 2010.
So maybe working so closely with Russia wasn’t such a bad idea, after all — Wikileaks has lived to fight another day.
This story has been revised slightly to emphasize that our assertions are conjecture.
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