William Tucker: Would the U.S. Really Kill Edward Snowden?

Why Handcuffs are Far More Likely than Bullets

William Tucker William serves as a senior security representative to a major government contractor where he acts as the Counterintelligence Officer, advises on counterterrorism issues, and prepares personnel for overseas travel. His additional duties include advising his superiors in matters concerning emergency management and business continuity planning. Mr. Tucker regularly writes on terrorism, intelligence (geopolitical/strategic), violent religious movements, and psychological profiling. Prior to his current position, Mr. Tucker served in the U.S. Army where he frequently briefed superior military officers in global terrorist movements and the modernization of foreign militaries. Additionally, he advised Department of Defense Police on domestic and international terrorist movements and trends in guerrilla attacks. Mr. Tucker received his B.A. and M.A. in Homeland Security (both with Honors from American Military University – AMU). You can follow William on Twitter at @tuckerwj.

The short answer to this question is no. The long answer is far more practical than one would assume, however. Since the Snowden affair came to light many of his lionizing supporters immediately claimed that the U.S. government would run roughshod over other nations in an attempt to silence him. Emotive reactions can be expected in such a politically charged action such as the one Snowden undertook, but emotion isn’t exactly practical. Instead, the U.S. responded rationally and attempted to extradite Snowden from Hong Kong. Indeed, the extradition attempt didn’t pan out, but that is hardly cause to launch an covert operation to kill an unimportant person on foreign soil. Snowden took a lot of information with him when he ran for the exit, but once that information is passed along to the press or a foreign government it is considered compromised. Now that the information is considered lost, Snowden’s personal value just took a nosedive. In essence, there is no putting the toothpaste back in the tube and the U.S. has been forced to accept that. Simple practicality aside, there are other reasons the U.S. would not want to take the political risk to kill Mr. Snowden.

Targeted killings are incredibly risky because the targets are typically hard targets. In other words, they may be located in hostile terrain, holed up in an embassy, or under some sort of protection. In the case of the War on Terror, the tribal regions of Pakistan are difficult for U.S. ground forces to access and this has led to the use of UAV’s to strike members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Inaccessibility was also an arrestor on many actions during the Cold War. Even if the target is successfully approached in close quarters, success is not always guaranteed. A prime example of this is the many failed attempts to kill Fidel Castro. Consider that Castro was a head of state, whereas Snowden is a lowly turncoat. Attempts on Castro’s life brought problems for the U.S. with each failure and escalated already tense relations with the Soviets. Soviet doctrine at the time stated that Moscow could intervene in the affairs of any allied communist state, and a successful assassination of Castro certainly would’ve put this doctrine to the test. Again, Snowden is hardly a head of state, but Washington has a lot on its plate at the moment and taking chilly relations with Russia even lower to target someone like Snowden is not in the best interest of the U.S.

Another aspect to consider is the failsafe that Snowden may have employed in the event he was targeted. Though its likely that Snowden has given most, if not all, of the information in his possession to a journalist, its important to consider that he may have given some data to another party. The journalist most closely involved with Snowden has been doling some information out at a regular pace to keep the story alive, but even the worst journalist would be wary of engaging in a data dump. A trusted, anonymous compatriot of Snowden’s, however, may execute such a data dump in the event that something did happen. Indeed, the U.S. may consider much of the information compromised and in possession of a foreign nation-state(s), but it is possible that it will not be made public. This is more hopeful than a practical approach, but it is still a form of data containment. For example, there is evidence that the Chinese Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Public Security had a turn at the table with Snowden, but what he may have disclosed in the interviews may have only applied to Chinese interests, and not, for example, Russian interests. This is why he would have been interviewed again by the Russian FSB. Essentially, Snowden may have compartmentalized his information circumstantially, but not necessarily consciously. Containing Snowden to one nation would likely arrest the flow of at least some information, however that is not guaranteed.* Again, a targeted killing of Snowden would upend this approach.

It is accurate to say that the U.S. has killed its own citizens in the past as part of war or espionage, but doing so in the Snowden case would certainly be counterproductive. A few arguments have been posed suggesting that killing Snowden is an option since Washington killed Anwar Al-Awlaki – a U.S. citizen and member of al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2011. There are several key differences to consider. Al-Awlaki was a self described member of al-Qaeda – a militant group that had declared war on the United States. The action taken by Washington in killing al-Awlaki was not without controversy since he wasn’t provided due process, nor was he tried in absentia. The Obama administration did eventually provide some insight into how the decision was made to target al-Awlaki, or any American citizen that was a member of al-Qaeda for that matter, and it was rather clear that discernible membership in al-Qaeda was a prerequisite. The administration has not provided any guidelines for killing an American citizen in a case similar to that of Edward Snowden, but then again it hasn’t been pressured to do so. Regardless, Snowden’s actions have made him a hero in a rather wide segment of U.S. society and killing him would likely only make him a martyr. Causing this wouldn’t be the best approach for the Obama administration in the ongoing attempt to stifle leaks in government.

Judging by the statements and actions of the administration it appears that prosecution is the preferred method of dealing with Snowden. Not only would this deny martyr status to Snowden – though his ardent supporters would continue to show solidarity – it would also allow the government to make a rebuttal to many of the claims made following the leak. Naturally, the government would be forced to own many of the now public secrets, but it would be the most likely avenue to pursue. Of course this is all predicated on the government gaining custody of Snowden. It seems that this obstacle seems insurmountable, but it is possible to get the accused leaker back in the U.S. through means such as rendition, extradition, or political bargaining. Extradition is a concept well known to the public, however rendition has a negative connotation usually associated with CIA activities. Oddly enough, the most successful rendition operation was Operation Goldenrod which was carried out by the FBI in international waters. Goldenrod was so carefully thought out that it survived a challenge in front of the Supreme Court. A similar operation to Goldenrod would satisfy many legal challenges and force Snowden to face a court of law.

Not discussing the political bargaining that typically ensues following an espionage case would be remiss and the Snowden case is no exception. Unlike the Chinese, Russia is in a rather good bargaining position vis-a-vis the U.S. Whereas Beijing could only deal with Snowden in Hong Kong, Moscow has more direct control over his future. In fact, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been rather gracious as of late which likely signals his intent to use Snowden and the recent Ryan Fogle affair to his advantage. Eventually, Snowden will have given up enough information through the media or directly to Russian intelligence that his continued presence in Russia would be of little use. When that happens Moscow will look for ways to trade him to the U.S. in exchange for something that Russia wants or needs at the moment, but the initial price will be high. Russia has a history of linking unconnected issues during negotiations as a way complicating issues. Though this approach is a mixed bag in terms of results, they will eventually see Snowden as a burden that can be easily jettisoned to another country or in exchange for a concession from Washington. Either way, Snowden may be under the illusion that he can continue to drag out his indeterminate status, but reality will soon set in – not by a bullet, but most likely in the form of handcuffs.

*Some past investigations show that U.S. persons that have engaged in espionage don’t necessarily give up all the information in their possession. Some reasons include attempts to stay relevant and useful to the host government, or simply because the host government didn't know to ask. This comes from case study reviews of past investigations where a U.S. asset in a foreign country is relaying information back about what a recruited/volunteer spy provided to their government. In such an instance information that is known/suspected of loss is compared to what the asset provides.

Blogs of WarJohn Little has been breaking national security news and leveraging thousands of conflict, intelligence, security, technology & political sources to provide level-headed analysis in a complex news environment since 2002.