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Man On The Run
Former CIA spies on what they'd do If they were Snowden
Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden
Edward Joseph Snowden (born 1983) is an American technical contractor, whistleblower and former United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA). Snowden released classified material on top-secret NSA programs including the PRISM surveillance program to the press. | Photo: Archives
ALSO | CIA | press
"Argo" this ain't.

Edward Snowden is on his own, it appears. The CIA is hunting, not helping him.

Unless he's working hand in glove with Chinese or some other spy agency, he has no access to master disguises and clever operational support, as the American diplomats who escaped Tehran did.

Moreover, the disillusioned former NSA contractor is a techie, not a trained operative. Assuming he's not working with a foreign intelligence agency, his only hope for evading capture for a few more hours or days, say former CIA operatives, is staying off the grid and holing up in a low-rent bordello or someplace else that doesn't require a credit card.

Snowden can be certain the NSA is listening closely for his phone calls or credit charges. Likewise, the CIA and DEA have certainly pinged all their Hong Kong assets--from local police sources to bartenders, hookers and hotel concierges--to be on the lookout for the fugitive. Same for the FBI, which has close relations with Hong Kong counter-terrorism units. His picture is everywhere.

So for starters, he'll need a lot of cash, says former CIA operative Art Keller and others with field experience. Even then, "unless he has unlimited cash funds in unfrozen accounts, he's likely to wind up treed" in a safe haven like the consulate of Ecuador, whose London embassy is already shielding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

[PROMO: IRS is Watching You t-shirt]

"If this was me, I would just drop off the grid for a while," says former FBI counter-terrorism special agent Mark Rossini. "Take the battery out of my phone and throw the phone away.  Get as much cash advance on credit cards and stop using them too.  He's in a bind since he can't travel anywhere without a passport and going to Hong Kong was not a strategic move if he wanted to be free. He would have been better off going to any European country, and then just traveling via public transportation to remote areas and using his cash to stay in hostels/small inns and eat cheaply."  

The NSA uber-leaker has a few resources for eluding capture, former spooks say, but not for long.

Charles Faddis
Charles Faddis
Former CIA operations officer, Charles Faddis, served for twenty years in the Near East, South Asia and Europe. In May 2008, he retired as head of the CIA’s WMD terrorism unit. | Photo: Aaron Stipkovich,
"The first thing you need to do obviously is to sever all ties with your previous identity," agreed former CIA operative Charles Faddis, who retired a few years ago as head of the Counterterrorism Center's WMD section. "That means [discarding] your phone, your computer, your bank accounts, passport, credit cards--absolutely anything that you had previously.

"From that point on you would be working with no identity and only cash. So realistically, you cannot do that very long. You either need to purchase new identity documents or you need to throw yourself on the mercy of some foreign power."

Added Faddis, who has written several books and novels based on his CIA experience, "I don't think this guy has a prayer of handling this on his own  So I suspect he will show up in mainland China soon. Or at least try to get there."

Snowden has insisted, however, that he has no interest in aiding a hostile power or defecting.

"He probably is taking the Assange model and is trying to get asylum in Ecuador," former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro said. "Too late for Venezuela" with Hugo Chavez dead.

Barring that, Hong Kong does provide a few amenities for a fugitive, former CIA field operatives told me.

"Well let's not forget, he's in the land of forgeries," said another former CIA operative who asked not to be identified. "If he's smart, he chose to do this in Hong Kong for a reason and already has his exit plan in mind along with some fake docs."

"Hong Kong isn't a bad choice," added Keller, whose first thriller, "Hollow Strength," was published last year, "because of the ambiguous legal status would slow extradition proceedings down once he is located."

Meanwhile, all the operatives mocked how the fugitive, who did a short stint as a low level CIA techie, took off without a better plan.

Emily Brandwin
Emily Brandwin
After spending several years performing in dark night clubs as a standup and improv comedian, Emily Brandwin took the next logical career jump and joined the Central Intelligence Agency...yes, The CIA. Now that she's left her career as a covert operative she spends her time working as a public relations executive and occasionally taking the stage. | Photo:
"My advice 4 Snowden," former CIA disguise expert (and professional comedian) Emily Brandwin told me in a tweet, is "perhaps he shouldn't have told everyone where he's hiding." That would explain his short CIA career."

He should have taken "Tradecraft 101," Brandwin cracked.

And it's not that hard.

"Even in this day and age, you can make fake ID's," Keller, who served under cover in the wilds of Pakistan and elsewhere, pointed out. "If he'd taken the time to do the laborious chore of finding a state that still doesn't do a good job of securing birth and death records. By mail, you can request a birth certificate from someone who was born around your age, but died shortly after. You use that as a document to get a driver's license and request a Social Security number. Then you set up some bank accounts under that name and slowly shift funds into them. Then apply for a passport."  

But "you can't do all this after the fact," Keller said. 

"With no alias passport," said a former CIA deep cover operative who asked not to be identified, Snowden's chances of evading capture are slim. And Hong Kong, a "special administrative region" of communist China, is not a good choice, he said.

"The first thing I would do is not hole up in a country with an extradition treaty with the US (Hong Kong has one). He could always flee to China, but they would make him cough up all of the NSA and CIA info he had...and then he really would be a traitor and not a whistleblower," as he claims, the former operative said.

Lindsay Moran
Lindsay Moran
Lindsay Moran, born December 18, 1969, is a former clandestine officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. She is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today. | Photo: James Kegley
"I'd go somewhere I can speak the local language, and blend in, so probably not, um, China, or Iceland," jibed Lindsay Moran, who published a memoir, "Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy," in 2005.

"I don't want to get more specific than that," joked Moran, who served in the operations directorate from 1998 to 2003.

"I think I'd be okay," she added. "But unlike Snowden, I've had training and practice in using disguises and aliases and detecting surveillance. Of course, if I ended up in prison--which he likely will-- I'd spend that time writing a book. And I'd make sure to get it cleared by CIA."

"I'd go to Viet Nam with a Lonely Planet and a story about re-tracing the steps of my uncle who fought and died there," kidded another former CIA operative. Then "lay low for a while before heading off to Bali."

China seems a likely destination for Snowden if he decides he doesn't want to spend years in jail.

It would be relatively easy to slip across the border, said former top Delta commando Wade Ishimoto.

"Hong Kong officials might stop him. But he could seek political asylum in China," he said.

In the meantime, "The key is finances," said the former deep-cover operative. "How are you going to travel, eat, and sleep while you are on the run?"

Snowden seems torn between running and wanting to have his day in court. If he thought he could do both by choosing Hong Kong, he was fatally mistaken.

He told the Guardian newspaper he was standing up for his principles by identifying himself.

Most likely, he'll get a chance to explain himself further in a US court.

(BE SURE TO ALSO VIEW: CIA Commando Hits Agency - John Doe says spy agency pursuing false war crimes probe. Copy of complaint included.)

Your Comments:
To Robert M: Obviously not true, if you've been following the news.
            -- Jeff Stein, Thursday, July 11, 2013 8:50 pm
"he can't travel anywhere without a passport" BS. He can't return to the United States, but even a revoked passport doesn't mean a damn thing to most countries, they'll just look, stamp, and welcome you in.
            -- Robert M, Thursday, July 11, 2013 7:28 pm
Barack Obama eats poop, but the writing is magnifique.
            -- marry omama, Wednesday, June 19, 2013 1:01 am
To David Johnston (4): .....and Beijing's interest in ridding itself of him will prevail. And then he won't look "delusional" after all.
            -- Jeff Stein, Tuesday, June 18, 2013 8:37 pm
To David Johnston (3): So that, and many similar judgements, formed the "factual basis" of my observation. But who knows? Maybe Snowden's bet that Hong Kong's vibrant pro-democracy movement will overwhelm its treaty obligations.
            -- Jeff Stein, Tuesday, June 18, 2013 8:32 pm
To David Johnston (cont'd): Regina Ip, a Hong Kong legislator and former security minister, said Snowden's decision to seek refuge there was based on an "unfortunate ignorance" in light of an extradition agreement with the US that it was bound to honor.
            -- Jeff Stein, Tuesday, June 18, 2013 8:28 pm
To David Johnston: I would say that Snowden's description of Hong Kong having "a strong tradition of free speech” under the heavy hand of Beijing was, if not delusional, extremely naïve. (No more space here)
            -- Jeff Stein, Tuesday, June 18, 2013 8:20 pm
To Proof Bot: I meant DEA, often the best-wired US intelligence agency abroad, not DIA.
            -- Jeff Stein, Tuesday, June 18, 2013 7:54 pm
On what factual basis do you describe Snowden as "delusional"?
            -- David Cay Johnston, Tuesday, June 18, 2013 4:22 pm
All the "advice" assumes he's trying to stay "out there" forever, which isn't necessarily the case. He's most likely trying to -delay- incarceration and silencing in the US long enough that he has input to the debate.
            -- David Brower, Tuesday, June 18, 2013 11:30 am
To Chris Travers: If you read the story closely, you'll see that the operatives I quoted make exactly the same point: that Snowden is not a trained operative.
            -- Jeff Stein, Thursday, June 13, 2013 9:53 am
What I would do if I was him, is find someone (not a hard task) that can copy a credit card (oversees) and ask him to take out money from another country. Do this on 3-4 continents and you're set. Then the money can easily be sent to him over WU.
            -- yeah right, Thursday, June 13, 2013 1:52 am
I think that one of the things that the former spies are missing here is that Snowden is not in the same position as a spy would be. He is writing his rules and the game he is playing is risky, but the gambles are not uncalculated.
            -- Chris Travers, Wednesday, June 12, 2013 9:59 pm
DEA or DIA? Is he trying to buy heroin or is the Defense Intelligence Agency looking for him? Also, should he hole up or hold up? Running spell check is not enough, try editing before you post.
            -- Proof bot, Wednesday, June 12, 2013 9:26 pm
At least the Geneva part of his story (Geneva Banker Framed by CIA) is a hoax. And the CIA/NSA activities are known since abt 60 (sixty) years.
            -- Harry R. Wilkens, Wednesday, June 12, 2013 12:44 pm
Mac, I'd be very surprised to learn his 'special skills' involved spy tradecraft. He made $200K because the secret intell contractor world is a world unto itself where costs are nothing.
            -- Jeff Stein, Tuesday, June 11, 2013 9:21 pm
Jeff, One of the troubling questions I have is : What special skills does Snowden have that afforded him a 200K salary as a high school drop out? Don't we need to know what those special skills are before we can attempt to assess his possible options ?
            -- Mac McIntosh, Tuesday, June 11, 2013 6:45 pm

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"Man On The Run | Former CIA spies on what they'd do If they were Snowden"
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