July 12, 2013
Former NSA contactor Edward Snowden wouldn’t be the first American to try to get “a sense of his soul” by looking hopefully into Vladimir Putin’s eyes. In June 2001, President George W. Bush told the world he had done that at their first summit meeting and had seen a good man there. That summer, the famous Russian dissident author, Vladimir Bukovsky was asked what he thought Mr. Bush might see looking into Putin’s eyes. “I have looked into many a KGB agent’s eyes and have not found anything particularly soulful there,” the writer and veteran of the Soviet Gulag deadpanned. It was Bukovsky’s sly way of reminding his credulous American listeners that Vladimir Putin is what he has always been: A tough adversary and a trained agent of the dreaded KGB.
Now, the young (just turned 30) American exile is living in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport under the watchful eye of the Russian security services. President Bush soon came to a more realistic assessment of good man Volodya. Edward Snowden may yet get a chance to look into those soulful eyes. And Snowden may provide a new twist on an old phrase—marry in haste, repent in leisure. Snowden may show us that defecting in haste can give one the leisure to repent.
Despite urgent pleas from the Obama administration that Snowden be turned over to U.S. authorities, the Russians have stonewalled our diplomatic overtures. On July 1st, President Putin said Snowden could stay in Russia, but only if he stopped “harming our American partners” with his leaks of sensitive security information. Putin himself noted it must seem strange for him to be shedding Krokodil tears over harm to the U.S.
The only thing that might be said for Snowden’s public disclosures is that they are public. That means that the U.S. intelligence services will know what he is releasing and presumably can take countermeasures. If and when Snowden is granted asylum in Russia, he will be strongly urged to stop “harming” the U.S. by his public statements.
From that point on, Snowden would do all his talking behind closed doors. And perhaps behind closed and locked doors. The Russian slang word for this is zyek. It stands for zaklyoochenyi—the locked away ones. Then, Russian agents would hear whatever he had to say and Americans would not be able to counter.
For Putin to call us his “American partners” is richly ironic. From the day President Obama sought to “re-set” our relations with Moscow, President Putin has been taking Mr. Obama’s measure. Re-setting meant letting the Russians take a pass on ripping an arm off the Republic of Georgia, so recently freed from Moscow’s control. Then, there was the withdrawal of the U.S. offers on missile defense to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The Obama team did that, we were told, to reassure Russia of our good intentions and to obtain Russia’s help in restraining Tehran’s quest for a nuclear weapon.
In this case, the road to Moscow was paved with Mr. Obama’s good intentions. In the past four years, Russia has been nothing but a thorn in our side. With North Korea. With Iran. And now with Syria.
It is indeed a terrible thing to watch as this misguided young man, Edward Snowden, pulls the pin from a hand grenade. As bright as he obviously is, he is a babe in the Moscow woods. He has no idea what lies in his future.
He may well get a headline or two in the ever-hungry Western media. Sometime this fall, he may show up at the Moscow Circus. Then, at the New Year, he might get a blurb while plunging into the frigid waters of the Neva River, a favorite winter pastime of hardy Muscovites. And then, slowly, he will fade from the TV screens.
With no new and interesting revelations to offer as chum to the media, he will have stopped harming the Americans and will soon be old news. And then will come the future. The long, gray future.
Once upon a time, American schoolchildren read Edward Everett Hale’s short story, “A Man without a Country.” In that Civil War era work, a young Army officer, Philip Nolan, becomes ensnared in the 1805 Burr conspiracy. Court martialed for treason, he bursts out: “Damn the United States! I never want to hear the name of the United States again!” DONE, say his judges. And they sentence him to spend the rest of his life on board American naval vessels, never setting foot on land, never hearing “the United States.” It’s a powerful and touching story, the more so since it was written at the time of the greatest rebellion against the United States. One of the most moving parts of this story has an aging Philip Nolan reading to the ships’ officers and ladies a portion of Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” Suddenly, he comes upon this passage:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead?
Who never to himself hath said,?
This is my own, my native land!?
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,?
As home his footsteps he hath turned?
From wandering on a foreign strand!
Americans today are doubtless too cool to be much moved by Philip Nolan’s breakdown on reading those lines. But if Edward Snowden defects and is ever able to read that story, he will understand them. And he will repent in leisure.