Former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden has been living in exile in Russia for several years and potentially faces a decades-long prison sentence for espionage after leaking American intelligence secrets in 2013.
The impending conclusion of President Donald Trump’s term in office has stirred public debate among Republicans over whether Snowden is a traitor deserving punishment or a whistleblower worthy of clemency. Trump has already pardoned 42 people since the Nov. 3 election, according to the Department of Justice.
Trump floated the idea of a Snowden pardon earlier this year. “There are a lot of people that think that he is not being treated fairly,” he told The New York Post. “It’s certainly something I could look at. Many people are on his side, I will say that. I don’t know him, never met him. But many people are on his side.”
His remarks were notable as Trump has railed against government leakers throughout the course of his presidency, The Wall Street Journal reported. Trump even tweeted in 2013 that Snowden “is a spy who should be executed.”
Some Republicans have taken Snowden’s side in recent weeks amid speculation that Trump is considering a pardon. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul argued in favor of the move in a Dec. 17 op-ed published in The Federalist. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz said pardoning Snowden “was the right thing to do” in a Dec. 13 tweet.
Other Republicans remain unconvinced. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested Snowden “has American blood on his hands” in a Dec. 15 tweet. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney said pardoning Snowden “would be unconscionable” in a Dec. 13 tweet.
One significant consequence of Snowden’s intelligence leak was that it boosted Beijing’s espionage capabilities — a move that may have allowed China to conduct cyberattacks on the U.S. government and execute CIA informants operating in China.
After revealing himself as the NSA leaker in June 2013, Snowden fled to Hong Kong and later revealed intelligence secrets about American cyber operations in Hong Kong and mainland China. These operations targeted Chinese telecom companies, the prestigious Tsinghua University and fibre optic cable company Pacnet, according to the South China Morning Post. (RELATED: China Stole Data For Years, But Learning How To Read It Is What Changed The Global Spy Game)
The revelation that American spies infiltrated the Chinese telecom giant Huawei is of particular importance because Snowden publicized a number of secrets regarding the NSA’s espionage tactics, according to The New York Times.
China took note of how the U.S. was conducting its cyber operations and used that leaked intelligence to its advantage. “Chinese officials were just beginning to learn how the internet and technology has been so thoroughly used against them, in ways they didn’t conceptualize until then,” one former senior intelligence analyst told Foreign Policy.
“China had also stepped up its hacking efforts targeting biometric and passenger data from transit hubs, former intelligence officials say—including a successful hack by Chinese intelligence of biometric data from Bangkok’s international airport.”
— Alexa O’Brien (@alexadobrien) December 21, 2020
Less than a year after Snowden went public, a group of hackers identified as X1 and reported to be working on behalf of the Chinese government breached the systems of contractors who ran federal background checks and had access to Office of Personnel and Management (OPM) servers.
Around 21 million personnel records were targeted in the OPM hack, including information about government employees and background check data. National security officials later compared the potential damage of the OPM breaches to the Snowden leaks, according to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report. (RELATED: Trump Says Things Are ‘Under Control’ After Latest US Government Hack. Just How Bad Is It?)
Chinese intelligence officials also began using American infiltration techniques and flaws in the CIA’s communication networks to identify the agency’s assets and sources in China. Dozens of CIA informants were either executed or imprisoned by the Chinese government between 2010 and 2012, according to The New York Times.
According to Foreign Policy, the Chinese government began using data collected over time and from the intelligence leaks in order to predict the CIA’s moves. Mined data could be used to follow behavioral and travel patterns, allowing Chinese intelligence to determine who might become a potential CIA source and why.
Top officials in the U.S. military and intelligence community previously lamented after the 2013 leaks were publicized that Snowden’s actions had placed American troops and other assets in greater danger, The Wall Street Journal reported.