Edward Snowden began working for the US National Security Agency in 2009 as an intelligence contractor and collected information on the agency’s surveillance programs for four years. By programming a web crawler, a program that follows links and crosses websites copying “everything in its path,” Snowden was able to view 1.7 million files. His success mining highly-classified information stems from his convenient employment not at NSA headquarters, where he would have almost surely been caught, but as an independent contractor for an outside agency, allowing his efforts to go undetected for years. In May of 2013, Snowden brought NSA documents to Hong Kong where he met with interviewers from The Guardian and The Washington Post and exposed the “highly classified intelligence-gathering surveillance programs” conducted by the NSA and the GCHQ of the UK. The following month, the US government charged Snowden with espionage, and when Hong Kong refused to protect him from extradition, he fled to Russia which granted him temporary political asylum.
Snowden’s whistleblowing had an immense impact on the transparency of the large-scale secretive data collection the NSA had been conducting, including a court order from the NSA to Verizon to provide data for millions of private customers. There were also concrete political reforms due to the leak, as President Obama instituted reforms to the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. By December 2013, just seven months after Snowden’s leak, an independent panel organized by the president dictated that “the NSA should not be permitted to collect personal data and information from Internet service providers and phone carriers, among other recommendations.” Seven years later, Snowden was granted permanent residency and currently lives with his wife, Lindsay Mills, and their two children.
The United States and Russia have a tumultuous relationship that spanned decades prior to the country taking in Snowden, but the most pressing reason for recent turmoil has been the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since 2014, Russia has sought to annex Ukraine and reclaim it as a part of its neo-Soviet empire. In February of 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in a massive offensive that had been in the works for a year prior despite the country denying any accusations from NATO of doing so. So far, the United Nations has confirmed nearly 6,000 civilian deaths and nearly 9,000 civilian injuries since the February attack, and the war has resulted in widespread food shortages, mass migration of refugees, and immense unrest in the international community. In response, the United States joined a band of other countries in immediately condemning the Russian government and increasing financial aid to Ukraine, as well as passing the Ukraine Invasion War Crimes Deterrence and Accountability Act with the goal of collecting “evidence related to war crimes and other atrocities.” Additionally, the US government has imposed strict economic sanctions on Russia, such as banning the import of Russian oil and other energy products, as well as private American companies choosing to pull out of business agreements.
President Putin’s decision to grant Snowden citizenship, along with 71 other foreigners, was a calculated political move. By granting Snowden citizenship, the Russian government can hit the United States with a swift metaphorical slap-in-the-face without actually instigating any real combat. Additionally, the move serves as a venue for Putin to parade his power over the United States and further contribute to the belief that because of the international community’s fear of nuclear war, Russia believes they are free to act however it pleases. Despite one’s personal beliefs regarding the morality of Snowden’s whistleblowing, Putin’s decision to grant him citizenship has nothing to do with the goal of encouraging transparency with the US government but has everything to do with a massive display of power.