The global odyssey of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and self-styled "whistleblower" Edward Snowden, now entering its second month, is tracing out a map of America's adversaries like some kind of network analysis software program.
Whatever the arguments about alleged NSA abuses of U.S. citizen privacy rights or whether Snowden had any justification for revealing information he'd pledged a solemn oath to keep secret, his hop-scotch escape route and the motley crew of actors helping him stay out of reach of American justice already provide a graphic illustration of the loose-knit but powerful international network that is allied in hatred for the United States.
That network includes nation states, Islamic terrorists and the shadowy world of cyber warfare. The nexus of their collaboration converges on the U.S. and our friends and allies.
Snowden's journey since he fled his home in Hawaii on May 20 so far includes stops in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong and Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, with assistance from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and possible onward travel stops scheduled for Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador.
Islamic terrorists already have begun to change communication behavior in the wake of Snowden's revelations, according to U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials. Further complicating the threat matrix, cybersecurity experts have been warning for some time that there is evidence that adversarial nation states like China, Iran, and Russia as well as the jihadist al-Qaeda group are working with Anonymous hackers to mount cyber attacks against U.S. businesses, government and critical infrastructure.
Just connecting the dots on a map of places Snowden has been or reportedly is planning to go sketches a bleak picture of U.S. counterterrorism policy challenges and frankly, failures. The "reset button" agenda with Russia, for instance, took another visible dive at the June 2013 G-8 Summit meeting in Dublin, Ireland. Given the tense atmospherics of the one-on-one discussion between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which the former KGB operative displayed open contempt for his U.S. counterpart, it is no surprise that the Obama administration's request that Russia extradite Snowden back to the U.S. has been turned down cold. To begin with, there is no extradition treaty between the Russia and the U.S. More important, though, is the visible absence of Russian respect for the current American leader and his administration.
Putin, speaking at a June 25 press conference in Finland, dismissed U.S. accusations that Russia is not cooperating on the Snowden matter, calling them "rubbish."
Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino confirmed on June 23 that Snowden had requested political asylum in Ecuador. Ecuadorian Ambassador to Russia, Patricio Alberto Chávez Zavala, was at the Moscow airport the same date and told reporters that he expected to meet and speak with Snowden and Sarah Harrison, the Wikileaks representative traveling with him.
Assange himself is a fugitive from arrest and possible extradition to the U.S. to face charges of leaking sensitive information and has been hiding out inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 2012.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, elected to a third term in May 2013 and an outspoken adversary of the U.S., is looking to succeed the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as the key South American ally of the belligerently jihadist Iranian regime. Senior officials from both the Iranian and Syrian regimes attended Correa's inauguration ceremony on May 24.
U.S. failure to confront Iran's aggressive expansion in the Western Hemisphere, with the Venezuelan relationship as its centerpiece -- but including Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua as well -- has allowed the unchallenged establishment of multiple new Iranian diplomatic facilities as well as Islamic Centers and mosques especially since 2005.
Each of these provides Tehran with an intelligence and military outpost out of which its undercover Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Qods Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) operatives are free to direct terrorist operations, often in collaboration with Hezbollah and narco-trafficking cartels.
With this sort of far-flung network—extending from China to Russia to the Western Hemisphere and including international anti-American organizations such as al-Qaeda, Anonymous and Wikileaks—working in some degree of coordination to protect and probably exploit Snowden, the likely damage to U.S. security agencies' legitimate ability to track enemy internet and telephone communications is severe.
In addition to putting terrorists on notice about U.S. ability to listen in on their emails and phone calls, Snowden also let China know that NSA had been hacking into its mobile telephone companies to access text messages and also had accessed the servers at Tsinghua University, a top Chinese education and research center.
Documents that Snowden reportedly provided to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post were said to list operational details about Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, dates of the NSA activity and whether that was still ongoing.
It remains to be seen what other sensitive information may yet emerge as Snowden continues his tour of countries most hostile to the U.S., but according to what he told the South China Morning Post, his betrayal began long before the current odyssey.
In fact, Snowden said he deliberately sought out a position as an analyst with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton months ago so that he could gain access to restricted information about NSA activities. It is improbable that Snowden embarked alone and unaided on that betrayal or his current journey.
Nor is it any longer plausible that a worldwide network of U.S. adversaries, from China, to Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, al-Qaeda, Anonymous and Wikileaks is not collaborating to some degree and at some level to keep him out of U.S. legal clutches as well as exploit every single byte of data that he can provide them.
A world without strong American leadership that leads from the front, not the back, is an alarming prospect that beckons chaos.