The Most Wanted Man In The World

Edward Snowden, the most wanted man in the world. For almost nine months, I have been trying to set up an interview with him—traveling to Berlin, Rio de Janeiro twice, and New York multiple times to talk with the handful of his confidants who can arrange a meeting. Among other things, I want to answer a burning question: What drove Snowden to leak hundreds of thousands of top-secret documents, revelations that have laid bare the vast scope of the government's domestic surveillance programs? In May I received an email from his lawyer, ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, confirming that Snowden would meet me in Moscow and let me hang out and chat with him for what turned out to be three solid days over several weeks. It is the most time that any journalist has been allowed to spend with him since he arrived in Russia in June 2013. But the finer details of the rendezvous remain shrouded in mystery. I landed in Moscow without knowing precisely where or when Snowden and I would actually meet. Now, at last, the details are set.

I am staying at the Hotel Metropol, a whimsical sand-colored monument to pre-revolutionary art nouveau. Built during the time of Czar Nicholas II, it later became the Second House of the Soviets after the Bolsheviks took over in 1917. In the restaurant, Lenin would harangue his followers in a greatcoat and Kirza high boots. Now his image adorns a large plaque on the exterior of the hotel, appropriately facing away from the symbols of the new Russia on the next block—Bentley and Ferrari dealerships and luxury jewelers like Harry Winston and Chopard.

I've had several occasions to stay at the Metropol during my three decades as an investigative journalist. I stayed here 20 years ago when I interviewed Victor Cherkashin, the senior KGB officer who oversaw American spies such as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. And I stayed here again in 1995, during the Russian war in Chechnya, when I met with Yuri Modin, the Soviet agent who ran Britain's notorious Cambridge Five spy ring. When Snowden fled to Russia after stealing the largest cache of secrets in American history, some in Washington accused him of being another link in this chain of Russian agents. But as far as I can tell, it is a charge with no valid evidence.

I confess to feeling some kinship with Snowden. Like him, I was assigned to a National Security Agency unit in Hawaii—in my case, as part of three years of active duty in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Then, as a reservist in law school, I blew the whistle on the NSA when I stumbled across a program that involved illegally eavesdropping on US citizens. I testified about the program in a closed hearing before the Church Committee, the congressional investigation that led to sweeping reforms of US intelligence abuses in the 1970s. Finally, after graduation, I decided to write the first book about the NSA. At several points I was threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act, the same 1917 law under which Snowden is charged (in my case those threats had no basis and were never carried out). Since then I have written two more books about the NSA, as well as numerous magazine articles (including two previous cover stories about the NSA for WIRED), book reviews, op-eds, and documentaries.

But in all my work, I've never run across anyone quite like Snowden. He is a uniquely postmodern breed of whistle-blower. Physically, very few people have seen him since he disappeared into Moscow's airport complex last June. But he has nevertheless maintained a presence on the world stage—not only as a man without a country but as a man without a body. When being interviewed at the South by Southwest conference or receiving humanitarian awards, his disembodied image smiles down from jumbotron screens. For an interview at the TED conference in March, he went a step further—a small screen bearing a live image of his face was placed on two leg-like poles attached vertically to remotely controlled wheels, giving him the ability to “walk” around the event, talk to people, and even pose for selfies with them. The spectacle suggests a sort of Big Brother in reverse: Orwell's Winston Smith, the low-ranking party functionary, suddenly dominating telescreens throughout Oceania with messages promoting encryption and denouncing encroachments on privacy.

Of course, Snowden is still very cautious about arranging face-to-face meetings, and I am reminded why when, preparing for our interview, I read a recent Washington Post report. The story, by Greg Miller, recounts daily meetings with senior officials from the FBI, CIA, and State Department, all desperately trying to come up with ways to capture Snowden. One official told Miller: “We were hoping he was going to be stupid enough to get on some kind of airplane, and then have an ally say: ‘You're in our airspace. Land.’ ” He wasn't. And since he disappeared into Russia, the US seems to have lost all trace of him.

I do my best to avoid being followed as I head to the designated hotel for the interview, one that is a bit out of the way and attracts few Western visitors. I take a seat in the lobby facing the front door and open the book I was instructed to bring. Just past one, Snowden walks by, dressed in dark jeans and a brown sport coat and carrying a large black backpack over his right shoulder. He doesn't see me until I stand up and walk beside him. “Where were you?” he asks. “I missed you.” I point to my seat. “And you were with the CIA?” I tease. He laughs.

Snowden is about to say something as we enter the elevator, but at the last moment a woman jumps in so we silently listen to the bossa nova classic “Desafinado” as we ride to an upper floor. When we emerge, he points out a window that overlooks the modern Moscow skyline, glimmering skyscrapers that now overshadow the seven baroque and gothic towers the locals call Stalinskie Vysotki, or “Stalin's high-rises.” He has been in Russia for more than a year now. He shops at a local grocery store where no one recognizes him, and he has picked up some of the language. He has learned to live modestly in an expensive city that is cleaner than New York and more sophisticated than Washington. In August, Snowden's temporary asylum was set to expire. (On August 7, the government announced that he’d been granted a permit allowing him to stay three more years.)

Entering the room he has booked for our interview, he throws his backpack on the bed alongside his baseball cap and a pair of dark sunglasses. He looks thin, almost gaunt, with a narrow face and a faint shadow of a goatee, as if he had just started growing it yesterday. He has on his trademark Burberry eyeglasses, semi-rimless with rectangular lenses. His pale blue shirt seems to be at least a size too big, his wide belt is pulled tight, and he is wearing a pair of black square-toed Calvin Klein loafers. Overall, he has the look of an earnest first-year grad student.

Snowden is careful about what's known in the intelligence world as operational security. As we sit down, he removes the battery from his cell phone. I left my iPhone back at my hotel. Snowden's handlers repeatedly warned me that, even switched off, a cell phone can easily be turned into an NSA microphone. Knowledge of the agency's tricks is one of the ways that Snowden has managed to stay free. Another is by avoiding areas frequented by Americans and other Westerners. Nevertheless, when he's out in public at, say, a computer store, Russians occasionally recognize him. “Shh,” Snowden tells them, smiling, putting a finger to his lips.

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://www.wired.com/2014/08/edward-snowden#ch-1

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