I think Juan Zarate’s exactly right. This is a poisoned chalice, although one Trump would have to accept if offered.
U.S. intelligence has collected information that Russia is considering turning over Edward Snowden as a “gift” to President Donald Trump — who has called the NSA leaker a “spy” and a “traitor” who deserves to be executed.
That’s according to a senior U.S. official who has analyzed a series of highly sensitive intelligence reports detailing Russian deliberations and who says a Snowden handover is one of various ploys to “curry favor” with Trump. A second source in the intelligence community confirms the intelligence about the Russian conversations and notes it has been gathered since the inauguration…
“For Russia, this would be a win-win. They’ve already extracted what they needed from Edward Snowden in terms of information and they’ve certainly used him to beat the United States over the head in terms of its surveillance and cyber activity,” [former deputy national security adviser Juan] Zarate said.
“It would signal warmer relations and some desire for greater cooperation with the new administration, but it would also no doubt stoke controversies and cases in the U.S. around the role of surveillance, the role of the U.S. intelligence community, and the future of privacy and civil liberties in an American context.”
Trump’s going to need concessions in return for lifting sanctions on Russia, to prove to Americans that he made a great deal. Snowden would be perfect from Putin’s standpoint: Returning him would cost Russia nothing while giving Trump a “win” that would actually end up forcing him into a thicket of issues that would divide the country. Libertarians, Wikileaks fans, and Russia doves on the right would want leniency for Snowden; hawks would demand maximum punishment. Liberals would also be split. Trump has been aggressive in criticizing Snowden in the past, calling him a traitor who deserved death in 2013; with Snowden in custody, he’d have to decide whether to follow through on that and risk outrage or back down and be accused by hawks of wimping out. The court battle over Snowden’s fate could drag on for years, polarizing the country even further. All of which is in line with Putin’s approach to western democracies generally, sowing discord and trusting disunity to weaken the enemy from within.
Snowden, implausibly, is treating this as good news of a sort:
Finally: irrefutable evidence that I never cooperated with Russian intel. No country trades away spies, as the rest would fear they're next. https://t.co/YONqZ1gYqm
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) February 10, 2017
That’s cute but most spies don’t have anywhere near Snowden’s political cachet. This wouldn’t be a matter of merely turning over someone guilty of espionage against the United States; it would be a matter of handing over one of the world’s most notorious fugitives, at the center of American debates about the surveillance state. If Russia can get something meaningful policy-wise for that, starting with sanctions relief, and spread a little more chaos to the United States, why not do it? Other Russian spies would have little to fear. Snowden is sui generis.
One thought that occurred both to me and Ed Morrissey: It’s a curious coincidence that this bombshell is dropping on the very day that news broke of Mike Flynn chatting up the Russians about sanctions weeks before the new administration took office, while Obama was busy punishing Russia for their hacking operations during the campaign. Is the Snowden news being dangled by the Trump administration to get Flynn off the front page? Is it in fact a sort of defense of Flynn’s chatter to the Russians, along the lines of “look what we’re getting in return for dialogue with Moscow”? Or is it just BS to soften up public opinion more broadly in favor of diplomacy with Russia? I.e. if they’re considering making a “gift,” obviously we can trust them to be good-faith actors in all things, right?
Here’s the president, a stalwart cable-news watcher who was traveling today with Flynn, claiming that, um, he hadn’t heard about Flynn’s discussions with Russia yet.