Russian officials provided contradictory reports Tuesday on the status of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who fled the United States after providing journalists with documents describing secret and extensive surveillance programs. Alexei Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker, tweeted that Snowden had accepted an offer of asylum from Venezuela:
Pushkov dependably reflects the government’s position on international issues, which lent some credibility to his original tweet. He later tweeted, according to another translation from RT, “Information about Snowden accepting Maduro’s offer of asylum comes from [Russian TV channel] Vesti 24 newscast at 18:00. Contact them for all questions.”
Adding to the confusion, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Guardian’s Miriam Elder that he had no knowledge of Snowden accepting asylum from Venezuela, going on to rebuke Pushkov directly – perhaps a sign of Kremlin unhappiness with the tweet, although it’s not clear if that would have been because it was false or because he was merely supposed to stay quiet.
The Venezuelan government’s offer last week to shelter Snowden has given President Nicolás Maduro an opportunity to demonstrate his opposition to the United States:
Newly elected and facing staggering economic problems at home despite the country’s oil wealth, Maduro appears to have made a high-pitched, openly hostile position against the Obama administration a cornerstone of his government’s foreign policy. He took his most provocative stand Friday in announcing that Venezuela would take in Snowden. On Monday, Maduro said that a letter from Snowden requesting asylum had been received and that the young American would simply have to decide when to fly to Caracas.
Maduro has accused the United States of fomenting protests against his government after his disputed April 14 election victory, which gave him the presidency his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, had held for 14 turbulent years until his death from cancer.
The Snowden saga — a young American revealing secrets the U.S. government wants to contain — provided the perfect opportunity for Maduro to take on the Obama administration, said Eduardo Semtei, a former Venezuelan government official.
“To figure internationally, to show that he is a player among big powers, he offered asylum to Snowden,” said Semtei, who had been close to Chávez’s brother, Adán, a leading ideologue in the late president’s radical movement. “This grabs headlines, and it shows that he’s a strong president, one with character, and that he’s capable of challenging the United States.”. . .
Ignacio Arcaya, a diplomat who served the Chávez government in the United States in the early part of his presidency, said Maduro has had the challenge of trying to ease the concerns of radicalized sectors in his movement that have been worried about a resumption of relations with Washington now that Chávez is gone. Indeed, until recently, Maduro was spearheading an effort at rapprochement, as shown by a meeting in Guatemala on June 5 between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Venezuelan counterpart, Elías Jaua.
“What Maduro is doing is aimed at quieting the radical sectors of his party who think he is negotiating with the United States and think that he’s talking to private industry,” Arcaya said.
Maduro also has to consider his own unstable political position after the April 14 election, which is being contested by his challenger, Henrique Capriles, who says the vote was stolen from him. At the same time, Maduro faces millions of Venezuelans tired of the country’s sky-high inflation, rampant homicide rate and serious shortages of everything from chicken to toilet paper.
Concerns about the reach of U.S. power in Latin America might have been amplified Tuesday, after a Brazilian newspaper reported on digital intelligence operations there:
The O Globo newspaper says it has access to some documents released by the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
Two recent monthly snapshots of the volume of emails and calls logged in the region shows the main targets were Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.
O Globo also says the documents show the program was gathering information on petroleum and energy in at least Venezuela and Mexico. There were no details on what the information might be.
The Tuesday story in O Globo was co-authored by U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story of the spy program after obtaining documents from Snowden.
Walter Pincus suggests that WikiLeaks might have been responsible for putting Snowden in touch with Greenwald and other journalists:
In January, Snowden contacted documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras using encrypted e-mails. Without providing his name, he claimed to have information about the intelligence community. Poitras told an interviewer last month that in February, Snowden had also had a similar first contact with Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper. Greenwald wrote on June 10, “Laura Poitras and I have been working with him [Snowden] since February.”
Barton Gellman, a contributing writer for The Washington Post, wrote last month that he, too, was first contacted in February, initially by Poitras and then indirectly by Snowden. Snowden again did not disclose his real name.
How did Snowden decide on these three individuals before he went to work for Booz Allen and before he apparently had all the documents he wanted to release?
Poitras and Greenwald are well-known free-speech activists, with many prior connections, including as founding members in December of the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation. One of its key goals is to support groups that engage in transparency journalism and support whistleblowers, including WikiLeaks.
Poitras had suggested Snowden contact Gellman, who had been part of a fellowship program with her at New York University’s Center on Law and Security.
Greenwald had the byline on the initial June 5 Guardian story, and Gellman and Poitras were bylined on The Post’s story on June 6.
Did Assange and WikiLeaks personnel help or direct Snowden to those journalists?
For past coverage of this story, continue reading here.