It is possible that Edward Snowden is a Chinese spy, as Dick Cheney might have you believe. If he is, Snowden is one of the most capable and least predictable spies in American history. A cursory look at the evidence at hand suggests that Cheney is wrong.
The case for.
Cheney made his comments during an interview yesterday morning on Fox News. The former vice president said Snowden's trip to China was itself suspicious, raising questions about whether or not Snowden planned to head to the country prior to releasing the classified documents. "The Chinese would welcome the opportunity and probably [be] willing to provide immunity for him or sanctuary for him, if you will, in exchange for what he presumably knows or doesn't know," Cheney said, as transcribed by The Huffington Post.
For a person in possession of untold numbers of classified government documents, there are few places where cashing out makes as much sense as in China. Snowden has publicly admitted that Chinese hacking targets are among the documents he possesses. And, as a number of people have pointed out, including The Atlantic's James Fallows, China is hardly the best place for someone claiming to want the ability to speak freely.
What's more, Barton Gellman of the Washington Post reported last week that, in initial conversations with Snowden, the leaker "alluded to other options, aware that he had secrets of considerable financial value" — but that he had "no desire to provide raw source material to a foreign government." Snowden insisted that the paper also publish a crytographic key that he could "use to prove to a foreign embassy that he was the document’s source."
The FBI's Counterintelligence program points to the increased prevalence of "insider" spies, both international and corporate. Among the factors that could lead an employee to sell information are "divid loyalty," "ego/self-image," "ideology," and organizational factors — like the availability of the information. Among the recent cases the FBI points to are three in the 2006-2007 timeframe, all involving the sale of secrets to China.
One potential hitch in this theory is that, by releasing the documents publicly, Snowden doesn't fit the profile of a traditional spy. To which two arguments can be made. The first is that the public release could serve as a cover. Both Snowden and The Guardian, which first reported on his leaks, suggest that he has many more documents that aren't public. Those retain some value. The second is that there is value to China in the damage that's been done to the United States with the leaks. The timing of several has been notable for the embarrassment they've caused the government, including a leak about the United States' cyberwarfare plans the same day Obama was scheduled to criticize the Chinese government for its cyberattacks on and hacking of American facilities.
The case against.
It's important to note that Snowden's critics commonly have motive to disparage his intent. Cheney, of course, was a member of the administration which first developed the tools about which Snowden released information. (Programs that, as the Washington Post notes, the administration's own deputy attorney general thought were legally questionable.) Others who've implied that Snowden is a traitor — including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep, John Boehner — are complicit in repeatedly authorizing expansions and extensions of the programs. If Snowden is a Chinese spy, it detracts from critique of it.
During an online interview Monday morning, Snowden responded to the vice president with a similar point.
This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American ...
Asked directly during that same interview, Snowden continued to deny any link with Chinese intelligence. "I have had no contact with the Chinese government," he said. "Just like with the Guardian and the Washington Post, I only work with journalists." He also (by now famously) asked:
[I]f I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.
It is possible that this is a coded message to his Chinese handlers. More likely, it's a joke. A spokesperson for the Chinese government this morning called reports that he was a spy for their government "sheer nonsense." But she then took the opportunity to score some political points, saying "The United States should take the concerns and demands of the international community and the public over [government surveillance] seriously, and give a necessary explanation."
The strongest argument against Snowden being a spy, of course, is that this is a tremendously circuitous and public way for the Chinese government to access information. Snowden got to Hong Kong with the classified documents, but still preferred to work with two media outlets for months to prepare his leaks. Knowing, mind you, that the government pays close attention to sensitive information being shared online. Which is also a response to Cheney's concerns about prior communication with China. The NSA's legal mandate is to track foreign communication — which Snowden may well have known how to avoid but certainly knew might raise flags.
There are people in the government spying for China right now. There's no question of that. But that FBI list of rationales for doing so places heavy emphasis on two factors that don't appear to have been significant to Snowden: money and loyalty. The three spies caught sending information to China were Chinese. In April, an American soldier was convicted of trying to sell secrets to Russia — in extremely clumsy fashion — but his motive was money. Which isn't to say that Snowden might not still get his phoenix-packed palace, just that, as he points out, he could already have it.
The issue won't be settled definitively for decades, if then. It will require clarification from someone less inclined to obscure the truth that a spokesperson for the Chinese government or Snowden himself. Until then, there's little reason to suspect that Snowden acted from an impetus besides his own. But one thing is certain: If Cheney and his friends are correct, and Snowden was a Chinese spy all along, the NSA has much bigger problems than these surveillance revelations.