PARIS — In the good old days of the Cold War, when spies wanted to defect, they sneaked into a secret door of an enemy embassy with a briefcase stuffed full of state secrets.
Then came Edward Snowden.
Is he a traitor, a defector or a human rights activist? Snowden defies traditional classification of a rogue agent, say experts.
Sebastien Laurent, a French espionage historian, said Snowden was “not typical in terms of the history of espionage” but could become the model for disaffected spies in the future.
The 21st century defector is no longer a top-level agent with a set of encrypted documents, but a computer geek armed with a portable hard drive.
“That’s the problem with privatising the security services,” said Laurent, referring to the recent trend of the American intelligence agencies to farm out work to “contractors” like Snowden.
“They employ people that were in the secret services and therefore already cleared. But in fact, that’s the main weakness. If these contractors have personal problems, they are armed with digital weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
Indeed, instead of defecting to a rival power, Snowden — a former contractor for the powerful National Security Agency (NSA) — flew to Hong Kong and handed over a USB stick full of top secret documents to journalists from British daily The Guardian.
The end of the Cold War and the breakdown of traditional rivalries means Snowden is more of a global defector, said James Andrew Lewis, former US diplomat and now analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“In the Cold War, there were two types of Western defector: Americans who defected for money and Britons who did it for more ideological reasons,” he said.
But instead of moving East or West, Snowden has become a global sensation for uncovering “a world in which everything I say or do is recorded” by the secret services, he added.
“He’s confused, idealistic, not very sophisticated,” judged Lewis, adding he was a product of “a very anti-government American popular culture”.
No escape route
Unlike the spies of old, however, Snowden has left himself without an escape route, noted the American expert.
“Why defect if you don’t even know where you’re going?” he asks.
“He left without any safety net apart from his information. He had no promise of protection,” agreed Laurent.
This apparent lack of forward planning has led the 30-year-old, now one of Washington’s most wanted, to be stranded in the transfer zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport after the US revoked his passport.
In recent days, his hopes of escaping the clutches of the American authorities have risen after Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia offered him asylum.
However, it is unclear how he will actually be able to fly to one of these countries without a passport.
He would also have to fly through the airspace of several US allies which might order the plane grounded.
“He’s dead, in a figurative sense,” said Laurent. “Given the seriousness of what he has done, he will never find a safe haven.”
Unlike the shadowy agents of the past, Snowden is a product of the Facebook, Twitter and reality TV age and was not afraid to show his face before eventually going to ground at the airport.
“He got what he wanted: a sort of glory,” said Lewis of the man whose face has been splashed over the front pages of the global media for weeks.
Moreover, this will probably not be the last case of its kind, given the importance of computer experts, hackers and programmers in the secret services, said Laurent.
“There will probably be other Snowdens.”