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Putin grants citizenship to Edward Snowden, who exposed U.S. surveillance

Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is seen on a screen during an interview via video link at the New Knowledge educational online forum in Moscow in September 2021. (Olesya Astakhova/Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin granted citizenship on Monday to Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked information about top-secret U.S. surveillance programs and is still wanted by Washington on espionage charges.

The decree signed by Putin covered 72 foreigners, but Snowden was the most prominent. Russia granted him asylum in 2013 after he fled the United States to avoid prosecution.

The 39-year-old Snowden, who considers himself a whistleblower, was granted permanent residency in Russia in 2020, and his lawyers said at the time that he was applying to obtain a Russian passport without renouncing his U.S. citizenship.

His lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told the state-run news agency RIA Novosti on Monday that his wife, Lindsay Mills, is now applying for Russian citizenship. Mills joined Snowden in Moscow in 2014. They were married in 2017. Snowden tweeted Monday night that they were parents to two boys.

Kucherena said Snowden would not be subject to the partial military mobilization that Putin decreed last week to help Russia’s flagging war in Ukraine. Only men with previous military experience are supposed to be called up — though there have been widespread reports of summonses going to many others — and Snowden has never served in the Russian army.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre referred questions about his new status to the prosecutors seeking his extradition. “Since I believe there have been criminal charges brought against him, we would point you to the Department of Justice for any specifics on this,” Jean-Pierre said.

Snowden’s revelations, published first in The Washington Post and the Guardian, were among the most consequential intelligence breaches in U.S. history. He disclosed the existence of the NSA’s collection of millions of Americans’ phone records, a program later found by a federal appeals court to be unlawful and since shuttered.

He also revealed details of industry collaboration with NSA intelligence-gathering in a separate program. Those disclosures greatly damaged the intelligence community’s relationship with the American tech industry.

In 2017, Putin said in a documentary made by American director Oliver Stone that Snowden was “not a traitor” for leaking government secrets.

“Think what you want about Snowden and Russia,” wrote Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, in a tweet on Monday. “He did an immense public service by exposing mass surveillance programs that multiple courts later found to be unconstitutional.”

The NSA, Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment Monday on Snowden’s new status. But Sue Gordon, a former principal deputy director of national intelligence, said his acceptance of Russian citizenship “takes away any illusion that what he was doing [through his disclosures] was to help America.”

“I do think it’s a very questionable decision,” she continued, “knowing what we know about what Russia perpetrates, to become a Russian citizen right now. I think it diminishes any patriotic argument that he might have made back then.”

Snowden explained his decision to seek dual citizenship on Twitter in 2020.

“After years of separation from our parents, my wife and I have no desire to be separated from our son. That’s why, in this era of pandemics and closed borders, we’re applying for dual US-Russian citizenship,” he wrote.

“Lindsay and I will remain Americans, raising our son with all the values of the America we love — including the freedom to speak his mind. And I look forward to the day I can return to the States, so the whole family can be reunited,” he added.

James R. Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, acknowledged Monday that the bulk phone records collection was one area where “we probably should have been more transparent” given the program’s focus on Americans.

“But he exposed so much else that damaged foreign intelligence capabilities that had nothing to do with so-called domestic surveillance,” Clapper said.

Said Clapper: “What a great time to become a Russian citizen.”

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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