MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Monday granted citizenship to former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who fled prosecution after he revealed highly classified U.S. surveillance programs to capture communications and data from around the world.
A decree signed Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin listed Snowden as one of 75 foreign citizens listed as being granted Russian citizenship. After fleeing the U.S. in 2013, Snowden was granted permanent Russian residency in 2020 and said at the time that he planned to apply for Russian citizenship without renouncing his U.S. citizenship.
Ties between Washington and Moscow are already at their lowest point in decades following Putin’s decision to launch what the Kremlin has dubbed a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
While Snowden, 39, is considered by supporters to be a righteous whistleblower who wanted to protect American civil liberties, U.S. intelligence officials have accused him of putting U.S. personnel at risk and damaging national security. He currently faces charges in the United States that could result in decades in prison.
“Our position has not changed,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday. “Mr. Snowden should return to the United States where he should face justice as any other American citizen would.”
Snowden becomes a Russian citizen as Moscow is mobilizing reservists to go to Ukraine. In Russia, almost every man is considered a reservist until age 65, and officials on Monday stressed that men with dual citizenship are also eligible for the military call-up.
Snowden, however, has never served in the Russian armed forces, so he is not eligible to be mobilized, his lawyer Anatoly Kucherena told the Interfax news agency. Having previous combat or military service experience has been considered the main criterion in the call-up.
Kucherena told Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti that Snowden’s wife, Lindsay Mills, an American who has been living with him in Russia, will also be applying for a Russian passport. The couple has two children.
“After two years of waiting and nearly ten years of exile, a little stability will make a difference for my family,” Snowden tweeted Monday. “I pray for privacy for them — and for us all.”
Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist known for his exposés of Moscow security services, said that “strictly speaking, (Snowden) could be drafted, strictly in theory.” But that would be bad PR for the Kremlin so it won’t happen, said Soldatov, who is on Russia’s wanted list for “spreading false information.” Russian authorities have also frozen his bank accounts and he lives in exile.
Snowden, who has kept a low profile in Russia and occasionally criticized Russian government policies on social media, said in 2019 that he was willing to return to the U.S. if he’s guaranteed a fair trial.
Snowden has become a well-known speaker on privacy and intelligence, appearing remotely at many events from Russia. But he has been sharply criticized by members of the intelligence community, and current and former officials from both U.S. political parties say he endangered global security by exposing important programs. A U.S. damage assessment of his disclosures is still classified.
James Clapper, who served as U.S. director of national intelligence at the time of the disclosures, said Snowden’s grant of citizenship came with “rather curious timing.”
“It raises the question — again — about just what he shared with the Russians,” Clapper said in an email Monday.
Snowden has denied cooperating with Russian intelligence and was traveling through Moscow when the U.S. revoked his passport.
Snowden leaked documents on the National Security Agency’s collection of data passing through the infrastructure of U.S. phone and internet companies. He also released details about the classified U.S. intelligence budget and the extent of American surveillance on foreign officials, including the leaders of U.S.-allied countries.
Snowden says he made the disclosures because he believed the U.S. intelligence community had gone too far and wrongly infringed on civil liberties. He also has said he didn’t believe the administration of former President Barack Obama, which was in office when Snowden leaked the records to journalists, would act had he made an internal whistleblower complaint instead.
His decision to turn against the NSA came when he used his programming skills to to create a repository of classified in-house notes on the agency’s global snooping and as he built a backup system for agency data, he wrote in his 2019 book “Permanent Record.”
Reading through the repository, Snowden said he began to understand the extent of his government’s stomping on civil liberties and became “cursed with the knowledge that all of us had been reduced to something like children, who’d been forced to live the rest of their lives under omniscient parental supervision.”
Snowden was charged in 2013 with unauthorized disclosure of U.S. national security and intelligence information as well as theft of government property. The three charges each carry a maximum 10-year penalty.
The Justice Department also sued to stop Snowden from collecting profits on his memoir, saying he had violated his nondisclosure agreements with intelligence agencies.
The White House on Monday referred comment on Snowden’s citizenship to the Justice Department, citing the pending criminal charges.