MOSCOW — For many prominent whistleblowers, the waning days of the Obama administration have brought some clarity as to their fate: Chelsea Manning, the soldier sentenced to 35 years for stealing diplomatic and military documents, had her sentence commuted by President Obama this week and will be released in May.
Julian Assange, according to the WikiLeaks organization he runs, had pledged to leave the Ecuadoran embassy in London where he has lived as a fugitive since the summer of 2012 and face charges in the United States (although he may now remain, a lawyer representing Assange said Wednesday).
But for Edward Snowden, the fugitive NSA whistleblower whose 2013 flight from U.S. authorities to Russia sparked an airport manhunt and worldwide headlines, the future grew slightly murkier on Wednesday, as Russia extended his right to live in the country until 2020 — a time when he could theoretically apply for citizenship.
For years now, Snowden has lived discreetly in Russia, making no public appearances or divulging meaningful details of how he spends his day-to-day life, while meeting for interviews with western journalists in unidentified hotel rooms. Digitally, he has become a prominent speaker and guest of honor at conferences supporting greater transparency in government.
Russia’s decision was announced by Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who in a Facebook post said that Snowden’s right to live in Russia, where he was granted political asylum in 2013, was extended “for a couple of years.” Snowden’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucharena, gave more details in remarks to Russian state media, saying that Snowden’s residence permit had been extended for three more years.
He also said that he hoped the new administration under President-elect Donald Trump would pardon Snowden.
“I put great hope on the new administration of the United States and hope that the new administration, the new head of the law enforcement agencies will understand all the circumstances, and see how much benefit Edward Snowden has brought to the American people,” Kucharena said in an interview with the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
If that is Trump’s plan, he’s been keeping it a secret. “Snowden is a spy who has caused great damage to the U.S. A spy in the old days, when our country was respected and strong, would be executed,” he tweeted in April 2014. In July 2013, while Snowden was purportedly still hiding in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport before receiving asylum, Trump called him a “a traitor who fled-he knew the crime.”
With the inauguration of America’s new law-and-order president set for Friday, the former acting director of the CIA wrote in an op-ed that returning Snowden to the United States, a point of conflict between the Kremlin and the Obama administration since 2013, would help cement a potentially fruitful personal relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“What better way for President Putin to cement the personal tie than to give the President-Elect a high-profile gift — Snowden,” Michael Morell, the former CIA official, wrote in the Daily Cipher, an online publication that focuses on security issues. “At the same time, what better way for President Putin to poke his finger in the eye of his adversary Barack Obama than to put Snowden on a plane at the very moment Mr. Obama is no longer president?”
The release could recall the decision by Iran in 1981 to release dozens of American hostages after 444 days of captivity on the day that Ronald Reagan delivered his inaugural address as president, embarrassing his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, Morell wrote.
The Kremlin on Wednesday said it wasn’t involved in Snowden’s life or following his movements. Meanwhile, Snowden gave measured praise to Obama on Twitter without reference to his own future: “Let it be said here in earnest, with good heart: Thanks, Obama.”
This article was written by Andrew Roth from The Washington Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.