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A decade on, Edward Snowden remains in Russia, though U.S. laws have changed

From Moscow, former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden addresses a technology conference in Portugal in 2019. Snowden fled the U.S. in 2013 and revealed highly classified U.S. surveillance programs. He's been living in Russia for the past decade, and received Russian citizenship last year.
Armando Franca
/
AP
From Moscow, former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden addresses a technology conference in Portugal in 2019. Snowden fled the U.S. in 2013 and revealed highly classified U.S. surveillance programs. He's been living in Russia for the past decade, and received Russian citizenship last year.

Edward Snowden's family traces its role in national security to relatives who fought in the Revolutionary War. Snowden assumed he'd be engaged in similar work as well.

But as a contractor for the National Security Agency, working at an underground facility in Hawaii in 2013, he witnessed the mass collection of electronic data on American citizens, and he thought it was wrong.

"We had stopped watching specific terrorists, and we had started watching everyone just in case they became a terrorist. And this was not something that affected just people far away in places like Indonesia. This is affecting Americans," Snowden said in a 2019 interview with NPR from Moscow, where's he's been living for the past 10 years.

A decade ago, many Americans were still exploring the technological wonders of cellphones and other electronic devices. Few were thinking about how governments or private companies could monitor citizens on the devices.

Then came Snowden's revelations.

Snowden copied files of the NSA's top-secret surveillance programs and fled the U.S., sharing the highly classified information with several Western journalists, including Barton Gellman, formerly of The Washington Post.

"I think Snowden did substantially more good than harm, even though I am prepared to accept (as he does not) that his disclosures must have exacted a price in lost intelligence," Gellman wrote in his 2020 book, Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State.

Gellman portrays Snowden as a loner filled with zeal and a black-and-white worldview. He describes Snowden as precise and accurate most of the time, though sometimes prone to self-aggrandizement and exaggeration.

U.S. officials still describe Snowden as a 'traitor'

Meanwhile, many in the national security community, then and now, regard Snowden as a traitor. Most all say he should return to the U.S. and face the criminal charges against him.

"He's clearly an individual who betrayed the trust and confidence we had in him. This is not an individual who is acting, in my opinion, with noble intent," said Keith Alexander, the NSA director when Snowden leaked the files.

"What Snowden has revealed has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies," Alexander told ABC shortly after the breach.

When Snowden felt he was about to be detained in Hong Kong, he flew to Russia. His final destination was Ecuador, but the U.S. government canceled his passport and charged him with violating the Espionage Act.

Those charges still stand, and Snowden's been in Russia ever since. He received citizenship there last year.

Still, Snowden provoked a fierce debate over government surveillance, personal privacy and the power and perils of technology.

New laws, and a move to encryption

"In the years that have passed, we have seen the laws changed. We have seen the programs change," Snowden said.

In 2015, Congress rewrote the law that allowed the NSA to scoop up everyone's records. The U.S.A. Freedom Act now prohibits the bulk collection of phone records by American citizens.

"The act also includes other changes to our surveillance laws, including more transparency to help build confidence among the American people that your privacy and civil liberties are being protected," President Barack Obama said shortly before signing the USA Freedom Act.

There's been another big shift as well. Many Americans now better understand how governments and private companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google collect personal data. This in turn has led to a much wider use of encryption. Snowden says 2016 marked the first year that a majority of Internet traffic was encrypted, a trend that continues.

There's no sign Snowden's case will be resolved anytime soon.

Snowden said when he landed in Moscow in 2013, he expected to have a one-day layover in Moscow.

But in his 2019 autobiography, Permanent Record, Snowden wrote: "Exile is an endless layover."

Snowden's critics often attack him for living in Russia, all the more so in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He says his attempts to move to other countries have been thwarted by the U.S. government.

"It is not my choice to be in Russia. I'm constantly criticizing the Russian government's policy, the Russian government's human rights record - even the Russian president by name," Snowden said.

From his Moscow apartment, Snowden initially gave online interviews to news outlets around the world. He's been much less visible in recent years. He's now married to American Lindsay Mills, and they have two young sons born in Russia.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.