Is Edward Snowden a 'real' spy?

And does it really matter?

NBCNews/Courtesy via Reuters
'NBC Nightly News' anchor and managing editor Brian Williams poses with former defense contractor Edward Snowden during an interview in Moscow, in this undated photo.

Edward Snowden says he's a spy. True?

Not really.

If a spy is anyone who has worked at a spy agency then, sure, he's a spy, having worked at both the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) before legging it to Hong Kong and on to Russia last year. But that's not what the word commonly means.

His claim, to NBC's Brian Williams, that he "trained as a spy," doesn't make him any more of a spy than taking a hostile environment training course for journalists run by a bunch of retired Royal Marines makes you a commando. Nor does extensive first aid training make you a combat medic.

Snowden was given a cover identity when he was working for the CIA in Switzerland on network security? Quite plausible. That's standard practice for almost all CIA employees working overseas. But again, not spying. He admits as much in his interview with Mr. Williams.

"I don't work with people. I don't recruit agents. What I do is I put systems to work for the United States. And I've done that at all levels from – from the bottom on the ground all the way to the top."

Building computer systems isn't spying. But if he's claiming that he was designing and running electronic penetration operations, he's being remarkably coy about the details – particularly given how much information he has revealed to the public about the NSA's and foreign intelligence partners operations around the world. 

Why does he care? Unclear – though it smacks of hurt vanity. "Spy" after all sounds sexier than "computer security technician" or "technical analyst."

Still, if he did have a lot of high-level spy training, it would appear that either the training stinks or he was an exceptionally poor student, judging by his actions. 

Snowden has said that he'd planned his leak for months in advance, and boasted that he had saved enough money to maintain his independence for years (though in November of last year his Russian lawyer, who also works with the country's FSB security service, said Snowden was out of cash.) He told Williams he didn't want to stay in Russia. "I had a flight booked to Cuba onwards to Latin America, and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow Airport."

So a trained American spy only started making arrangements for his flight after he'd blown his own cover. And thought that China (Hong Kong), Russia, or Cuba were good choices for someone eager to present themselves as a patriotic whistleblower. As for his passport being revoked – well, yes. That's pretty standard when trying to catch an absconding fugitive. Wouldn't a spy know that, too?

Meanwhile, the writer Glenn Greenwald has promised more leaks of Snowden documents. The vast majority of the stories revealed thus far (aside from the first two) have been about foreign intelligence targets – not US citizens – and American spies allege that he's done serious harm to US intelligence capabilities and national security.

How true is that? Unclear. The Guardian requested a release of the Defense Intelligence Agency's assessment of the Snowden damage, and received a document that was comically redacted. The document says Snowden's "Information compromise... will have GRAVE impact on US national defense" which is followed by a whole bunch of presumably whited out text. 

On page six the DIA writes "The scope of the compromised knowledge related to US intelligence capabilities is staggering." The rest of the page is entirely redacted.

For now, Snowden's interest in avoiding US jail and Russia's interest in hosting a man whose revelations have proven damaging to a great rival will likely continue to intersect.

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