Distinguished former CIA officer and author Robert Baer said on the BBC’s “Today” radio program Thursday morning that ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden has been in contact with the Russian government for the last seven years.
“My suspicion is that the Russians were probably in touch with him in Geneva,” Baer said, speculating they first made contact in 2007 while Snowden was stationed in Switzerland with the CIA. “I can’t prove it. But this was such a brilliant operation. And his landing in Moscow just makes old Cold War warriors like me very suspicious.”
Baer also dismissed Snowden’s assertion on his first U.S. television network interview with NBC’s Brian Williams Wednesday that he “was trained as a spy,” and described him as little more than a computer technician with a “Walter Mitty complex” lacking “common sense.”
“That’s silly. He wasn’t. He was a systems administrator. When he worked for the CIA in Geneva he was a communicator. That means he sits in an office and relays messages. That’s not a spy,” Baer said. “Secondly, the NSA doesn’t have spies overseas. It’s got technicians who sit in American embassies. They are not even analysts.”
Snowden, who was interviewed in a Moscow hotel, told Williams he had no regrets about leaking the thousands of classified documents detailing secret NSA bulk surveillance programs to journalists, and that he considered himself still in the service of his country by informing the public and launching a necessary debate about the proper balance between privacy and security.
“[I] feel comfortable that I’ve done the right thing even when it was the hard thing,” Snowden said. “I may have lost my ability to travel. But I’ve gained the ability to go to sleep at night.”
The former contractor, who could potentially face multiple federal espionage charges and 30 years in prison were he to return to the U.S., told Williams he’d like more than anything to come home, and hopes to work out some kind of a deal with the government to avoid a lengthy jail sentence.
Baer said brokering a deal over such a prolific intelligence leak could set a dangerous precedent, and lead to a “catastrophe” down the road.
When asked by Williams why he didn’t take his privacy and legal concerns to his superiors or through proper channels, Snowden claimed he did, and suggested members of the media and Congress petition the National Security Agency’s office of legal counsel for proof. Williams later said NBC had confirmed through multiple sources at least one instance of Snowden emailing the office.
Snowden also said he wouldn’t be entitled to a fair public trial, and that despite President Obama’s and other government officials assertions that Snowden could have utilized whistle-blower protections, such laws do not apply to government contractors.
“I never intended to end up in Russia,” Snowden said about allegations like Baer’s labeling him a tool of the Russian government.
“I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow Airport. So when people ask, ‘Why are you in Russia?’ I say, ‘Please, ask the State Department.'”
Snowden added that he was not receiving any financial assistance or compensation from Russia, had never met President Vladimir Putin, and had “no relationship with the Russian government at all.”
Suspicion regarding Snowden’s presence in Russia grew last month after the former contractor appeared on Russian television to ask Putin if Russia conducted bulk surveillance on its citizen in a style similar to that of NSA, which Putin denied.
The former NSA contractor was widely criticized for participating in the annual question and answer session with the Russian president, and representatives in the media and government alleged it made him look like a Russian instrument of propaganda.
Snowden combated those arguments in a subsequent Guardian op-ed, where he said he asked the question to hold Putin to account on mass surveillance — whether it be now or in the future.
“I was surprised that people who witnessed me risk my life to expose the surveillance practices of my own country could not believe that I might also criticize the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive.”