USA Foreign Policy First Look

Will Russia turn over Snowden as a ‘gift’ to Trump?

Russia may have considered sending Edward Snowden back to the US, according to a new report.

Edward Snowden speaks via video link during a conference at University of Buenos Aires Law School, Argentina, November 14, 2016.
Marcos Brindicci/Reuters/File | Caption

Russia has contemplated returning Edward Snowden to the United States as a “gift” to President Trump, less than four years after the former NSA contractor took refuge there, according to a new report.

The report from NBC News cites two US intelligence officials who have analyzed sensitive intelligence on internal Russian deliberations since the inauguration. The officials say the option was one of several designed to win the good graces of the US president.

It would also present new perils for Mr. Snowden, who faces charges that would land him in prison for a minimum of 30 years if convicted. And it seems likely that under the new president, the Justice Department would be unlikely to pursue anything but the stiffest penalties: Trump calls the former contractor a “traitor” and a “spy,” and in a 2013 interview on Fox & Friends, even suggested he should be executed.

The report resurfaces debates over how Snowden’s actions ought to be characterized, at a time when influential supporters have sought to win over a US public that remains divided about who he is, or what he did. And in a Friday-night Twitter post, Snowden pointed to the news as evidence that the temporary asylum granted him by Russia did not involve a quid pro quo, as US authorities have charged.

"Finally: irrefutable evidence that I never cooperated with Russian intel,” he wrote. "No country trades away spies, as the rest would fear they’re next." 

A June report from the House Select Committee on Intelligence, which condemned Snowden’s theft of classified documents, accused him of having passed along stolen intelligence to his Russian hosts. As evidence, they cite only the public claim of a Russian legislator and defense-committee chair.

"Since Snowden's arrival in Moscow, he has had, and continues to have, contact with Russian intelligence services,” the report said. 

This fall, Snowden’s legal team and civil-liberties advocates launched a campaign to get him pardoned by former President Barack Obama. Petitioners collected a million signatures in favor, and director Oliver Stone put out a biopic, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Jack Detsch reported

As Stone has done with his previous work, such as the Oscar-winning "Platoon" and "JFK," his latest film aims to make a political statement, this time about the global digital surveillance and privacy debate.

"Mr. Obama could pardon him, and we hope so," Stone said about Snowden during the Toronto International Film Festival last week. In fact, when the film opens Friday, activist groups are taking advantage of the publicity blitz to urge the White House to do just that. 

The campaign’s push for a pardon ultimately failed. It is unclear to what extent it might rehabilitate Snowden’s image over the long run among the US public, where a slight majority still views him unfavorably.

In January, Russia approved another extension of Snowden’s temporary asylum, though its foreign ministry did not specify how long. His lawyer in Russia, Anatoly Kucherena, told the New York Times that he would become eligible to apply for Russian citizenship next year, after having spent five years in the country.

Snowden's lawyer in the US, Ben Wizner, told NBC News that he and his team are unaware of any plans to send Snowden back to the United States.

"Team Snowden has received no such signals and has no new reason for concern,” said Mr. Wizner.