This story is over 5 years old.

Finding Snowden

Dodging the surveillance state to visit its most wanted man.

“There were times when I thought it would never happen,” Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent, said about her recent trip to Moscow. “I’m still amazed.”

I too was amazed when I received an encrypted email at 2am one recent October morning, with a photo of her and three other whistleblowers standing shoulder to shoulder with one of the most wanted men on the planet.

When Edward Snowden abandoned his Hawaii home, a long-term relationship, and a six-figure salary as a government contractor in order to lift the veil on the US's transnational surveillance system, he also left behind any sense of safety or security. The US Justice Department has charged the 30-year-old former "infrastructure analyst" with theft of government property, and two serious charges under the Espionage Act. The former director of the NSA, Michael Hayden, even recently "joked" during a cybersecurity panel that Snowden should be put on America’s kill list. (Rep. Mike Rogers R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, responded, "I can help you with that.")


For four high-profile former spooks, each with their own histories of whistleblowing and government persecution, arranging a secret meeting with the world’s most wanted whistleblower was no simple thing. In early October, they embarked on their mission to inaugurate Snowden into the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, a group of ex-intelligence officials who demonstrate “courage, persistence, and devotion to truth — no matter the consequences.” They had chosen Snowden as the awardee of their 2013 Sam Adams Integrity Award, and felt it would only be right to deliver the award—a candlestick holder made on a 3D printer—in person. They would be the first Americans known to meet with him since he arrived in Moscow on June 23.

Holding a 3D-printed candle to power: From left, Coleen Rowley (retired FBI agent), Thomas Drake (former NSA senior executive), Jesselyn Radack (former Dept. of Justice advisor), Snowden, Sarah Harrison (WikiLeaks journalist), and Ray McGovern (retired CIA analyst).

“Arrangements were made,” said Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA who was on the trip and who spoke carefully about its details. Drake, who warned about abuses at the agency after 9/11 and was indicted under the Espionage Act before most of the charges were dropped, has been cited by Snowden as an inspiration. After Snowden's disclosures, Drake warned him publicly to “always check six"—make sure you know what's behind you. "Obviously, with Snowden, no communications can be electronic.”

The term "logistical nightmare" springs to mind, but that would be an understatement. The challenges of what they called the "mission to Moscow," of communicating with and meeting with Snowden without revealing his location to people armed with the arsenal of technology Snowden has revealed, appeared insurmountable when the group began planning their trip in earnest in early August, at a hacker conference outside Amsterdam.


“We cannot be entirely sure, but it would appear that we did successfully meet Snowden without being tailed or giving his location away,” said Drake, who spearheaded the planning of the trip. “We arrived in Russia not knowing where we would meet him—and of course, we did not meet him at his place of residence. This level of security was at his request, and agreed upon to protect his safety.” They met in an undisclosed place that Rowley said was "probably a third location" in a series of possible rendezvous points, in order to throw off anyone who might be following them, and perhaps to keep the visitors in the dark too.

Moscow, via Flickr/apurturismo

Given the risks and difficulties of transportation, accommodation, and communication between Snowden and his visitors, it's not improbable, as some observers have speculated, that Russia's state security services are responsible for their eminent asylee. Some reports that emerged after the whistleblowers’ visit referred to metal detectors at their meeting place, and the presence of Russian officials. The visitors said that Snowden's attorney, Anatoly Kucherena, and a translator were also in attendance, along with the British journalist Sarah Harrison, of Wikileaks—"his shepherd, friend, protector and constant companion since Hong Kong," according to Radack. Ed's father, Lon, would visit the following day. But they would not discuss other people who may have been at the ceremony. “Russia has a duty to protect Ed as an asylee,” Drake explained. “That should tell you everything you need to know.”

However hard they are, the challenges of reaching Snowden might be somewhat diminished if you're already familiar with the ins and outs of government power, as the Sam Adams Associates certainly are. The award they were bringing was named for a CIA analyst who, in 1967, discovered that there were more than half a million Vietnamese Communists under arms, which was about twice the number that the US command in Saigon would admit to, lest the narrative of the war's "progress" prove to be false. Adams protested within the system, and after retiring from CIA in 1973, wrote an article about about what he called a CIA conspiracy for Harper's, testified before Congress, and helped CBS News make a documentary. But up until he died from a heart attack in 1988, he was nagged by the thought that he could have said and done more. The new whistleblowers are determined to avoid that regret.


“The US has unchained itself from the constitution,” said Drake, who has spent the past few years railing against the government's massive collection of Americans' data, which violates the Fourth Amendment's principle that "searches and seizures" require warrants. Snowden is a constitutionalist too, and when asked in an online Q & A what he would say to other potential intelligence agency whistleblowers, he expressed his nationalism in the plainest terms: “This country is worth dying for."

Snowden's decision to expose the NSA, made in service, he's said, to the American public and the Constitution, comes at a serious personal cost. His year-long asylum protects him in Russia, but beyond those borders, he risks prosecution, or worse. It's easy to imagine life that has been hollowed, exiled in a freezing, alien terrain by his crisis of consciousness; his daily existence shaken by the constant anxiety of his inevitable persecution.

To the contrary, though, Snowden is doing “remarkably well,” said Drake, who noted his "wicked sense of humor." Rowley rather casually told me he “seemed fine.” There, they described a man living in asylum, not as a fugitive—and not, as Snowden made sure to explain, as a pawn of the Russian government. (His passport was revoked by the U.S. while in transit to Ecuador, he points out, and, until early November, his every move was watched by Wikileaks' Harrison.) His biggest concerns, his visitors said, tended to go well beyond his own safety.


“He has a poker face,” said Rowley. “He talked a lot about the need for reform in the US—personal issues didn’t come up much.” What about former director Hayden’s thinly veiled assassination comments? “We asked him about that. It didn’t shake him at all. He shrugged it off.”

Rowley, herself a remarkably resolute character who was recognized as a Time Person of The Year in 2002 for her whistleblowing at the FBI, describes Snowden as “one of the strongest and most stable characters I have ever encountered.” He is practical and focused, she added, an Epictetian stoic who carried on with life as best as possible, sometimes getting out and about in Moscow (according to his attorney), and apparently, working too. Rowley said Snowden's new gig is “working on internet services of some sort.” No surprise there, but Snowden’s job, like his location, is likely to remain a closely guarded secret, for now at least.

Snowden's remarks at the Sam Adams Associates dinner, via Courtesy Wikileaks/The Daily Conversation

Being a Sam Adams Associate may not endow you with any added sense of security, but it aims to provide a comforting sense of solidarity. After the two-hour award ceremony, which included individual speeches, an exchange of human rights texts and Russian literature, and accounts of radical moments in American history, the attorney and translator left, and the whistleblowers chatted until the early hours. Another of his visitors, Jesselyn Radack, a former Justice Department ethics attorney and whistleblower who has represented Thomas Drake and others, chose to read from Albert Camus.

“We have nothing to lose except everything," she recited. "So let’s go ahead. This is the wager of our generation.” She drew parallels between Camus’ wager and what Snowden called "the Work of a Generation" in a statement he recently sent to the European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee. Radack reminded Snowden too that Camus rejected what he termed “the paltry privileges granted to those who adapt themselves to this world," adding, “those individuals who refuse to give in will stand apart, and they must accept this.” Stoicism, not anger, it seems, is a consistent motif among the US's intelligence whistleblowers.


Ray McGovern, the 73-year-old founder of the Sam Adams Associates, isn't among Snowden's generation, but he supports his "wager." A former high-ranking CIA analyst who served under seven presidents, McGovern argues that young people today who have grown up with the internet possess technical abilities and a corresponding conscience that motivates them to keep it free.

"One of the things that impressed me most," McGovern wrote, "was Ed’s emphasis on the 'younger generation' he represents—typically those who have grown up with the Internet—who have (scarcely-fathomable-to-my-generation) technical expertise and equally remarkable dedication to keeping it free—AND have a conscience."

"It is the sort of idealism," said Jesselyn Radack, "that allows someone to undertake such a magnificent act of civil disobedience. It’s an idealism that believes the democracy he once knew can be reined in from the surveillance state it has become, if only the public knew what was going on.” 

Drake, who has been thinking a lot lately about civil liberties in the digital age, believes that an internet-connected generation that remembers the pre-9/11 world may “carry new principles to do with the democratization of information and the protection of civil liberties that help us resist this dystopic nightmare.” Perhaps serving as some measure, the number of people using the anonymous web browsing program Tor has rocketed since the Snowden revelations.


Will this generation manage to curtail the kind of dragnet surveillance that Snowden helped disclose, whether through political change or technological evasion? Do Americans want to resist the spied-upon world that Snowden said he didn’t want to live in? In the Nation, Radack described Snowden as “idealistic—in the best sense of the word. It is the sort of idealism that allows someone to undertake such a magnificent act of civil disobedience. It’s an idealism that believes the democracy he once knew can be reined in from the surveillance state it has become, if only the public knew what was going on.”

There was a dose of realism in their meeting too. “He was always talking about what should we do next, how to achieve reform,” Rowley said, recounting the whistleblower's three main political aims. First, he would like to see section 215 of the controversial post-9/11 PATRIOT Act, and particularly section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, repealed, ending two elements of legislation that permit the collection of metadata and warrantless surveillance, with dubious constitutionality."

Snowden also said he wants to see the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) amended, as this is the legislation that permits the interception and storage of private electronic communications. Third, he urged that an independent body conduct a thorough inquiry into the surveillance practices of US intelligence agencies on a broader scale. Rowley reminded me that the NSA is just one of sixteen US intelligence agencies—and that there are around 2,000 private security contractors. “There is even more going on than Snowden knows about,” she said.


And for us, the public, too. Glenn Greenwald, who took hold of Snowden's documents (Snowden has said he no longer has them), estimates that he and other journalists are only about halfway through the release of Snowden's trove of exported documents. And some of the most shocking revelations, I am told, are yet to come.

The revelations likely won't end there. The ex-spooks tell me, with scant detail, that more whistleblowers have begun to come forward. There's a sense now that dawn is breaking in the Information Age, revealing a staggering new horizon. If information is power, Snowden has helped foretell a decade of unprecedented public empowerment, his supporters say. He may be called an idealist for wanting to change the world, but in the eyes of those who have dared to tread a similar path, he already has.

“It is never about the majority,” Drake said of the people who are instrumental in protecting the freedoms of the public, “nor has it been throughout our history.”


Correction: as of November 6th, Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks was living in Berlin. Her departure from Moscow was made, she writes, once "our team was confident that [Snowden] had established himself and was free from the interference of any government. 

Read more about the NSA disclosures and surveillance:

Top photo: Ostromentsky / Flickr