The Cable

Former U.S. Envoy: Snowden 'Manna From Heaven for the Russians'

ASPEN, Colo. — The former U.S. ambassador to Russia says Edward Snowden's continuing political asylum in Moscow has been an intelligence and public relations boon to President Vladimir Putin.

Michael McFaul, who left Moscow in February, told a large crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival here that Snowden "knows things that are useful to Russian intelligence" about the inner workings of U.S. eavesdropping and surveillance. While the former diplomat said that he had no particular information that Snowden, an ex-contractor for the National Security Agency, was sharing classified information with his Russian hosts, McFaul said the Russians were probably doing everything they could to glean secrets from Snowden. If a Russian intelligence operative with Snowden's level of knowledge had showed up in the United States, he too would have been granted immediate asylum, McFaul said.

"This was just manna from heaven for the Russians," McFaul said.

Snowden has consistently denied suggestions from U.S. officials that he has given Russia classified information -- either from a computer or based on what's in his head -- in exchange for asylum there. Nevertheless, McFaul said, even if Snowden isn't sharing secrets, he handed Putin a political and PR victory by remaining in Russia. Putin embraced Snowden as a fellow spy in a television broadcast in April. And, McFaul said, Snowden has said little about Russia's own aggressive surveillance operations, which he said include recording the phone calls of American diplomats and then posting them on the Internet.

"From the Russian perspective, this has been great," McFaul told the conference.

McFaul recalled a series of high-level meetings in 2013 following Snowden's disclosures, when Obama administration officials huddled about how to contain the fallout from his revelations. McFaul took part in conversations via video teleconference, often late into the night Moscow time. "On a personal level, that guy really ruined my summer last year," McFaul joked about Snowden. But, he allowed, "The debate he raised is an important one" about the limits of U.S. intelligence gathering and personal privacy.

McFaul didn't predict how much longer Snowden might stay in Russia, but he said that the American fugitive "has options to come home" to the United States. In an interview with NBC News anchor Brian Williams in May, Snowden said that he would like to return and appeared open to the possibility of a deal with federal prosecutors that would allow him to avoid a long prison sentence. McFaul, who's now a consultant for NBC News, said he helped Williams prepare for the Snowden interview.

Turning to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where a cease-fire ended on Wednesday with an eruption of violent clashes between the central government and Russian separatists, McFaul said that Putin could end the hostilities at any moment he chooses. If the Russian strongman were to appear on national television and tell separatist fighters battling Ukraine's fragile central government to lay down their arms, the conflict "would be over in a heartbeat," McFaul said.

McFaul dismissed suggestions that Putin wanted to effectively rebuild the former Soviet Union by taking over more territory. Instead, the diplomat said that Putin's decision to conquer and annex Ukraine's Crimean peninsula was driven by his fury over the collapse of the Ukrainian government and the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, a close Putin ally. In early 2013, McFaul said, Obama administration officials had been working hard to broker a peaceful settlement between Yanukovych and his political opponents. But when those talks ultimately failed and Yanukovych fled the capital, Putin concluded that the Americans had "duped him" and had helped install a new government that was hostile to Moscow.

"That's when [Putin] said, 'To hell with them. I'm done worrying about what [the Americans and the Europeans] think of me,'" McFaul said. "And that's when he decided to go into Crimea." 

AFP

The Cable

Exclusive: Russia Vetoes House of Cards

Vladimir Putin's government has vetoed House of Cards.

Russia's United Nations delegation on Tuesday blocked a request by the producers of the popular Netflix political drama to film two episodes in the U.N. Security Council, citing the need to keep the world's leading security chamber available for unanticipated crises, according to a series of confidential email exchanges between a Russian diplomat and his Security Council counterparts. The emails were obtained by Foreign Policy.

The Russian action came less than a week after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office recommended that the 15-nation Security Council allow the cable television series to film in its chamber during off-hours to raise public awareness about the organization. The decision doesn't foreclose the possibility that the producers of the show might shoot in another section of the U.N.'s gleaming headquarters at Turtle Bay. FP first reported on House of Cards' filming request last week.

But for viewers of House of Cards, Russia's action appears to have killed off the tantalizing possibility that television's most ruthless and devious political leader, President Frank Underwood -- who is played by Kevin Spacey in the show -- or one of his envoys would be given a seat at the Security Council's horseshoe table, an iconic setting that has launched military interventions from Korea to the Persian Gulf.

But the show is in good company.

More than half a century ago, the United Nations rejected a request by director Alfred Hitchcock to film a murder scene from his 1959 masterpiece North by Northwest in the U.N.'s North Delegate Lounge. Many top U.N. officials have long regretted it.

"The U.N. Department of Public Information is of the view that cooperating with the production would provide an excellent opportunity to raise awareness among a large audience around the world regarding the world of the Security Council, and of the organization in general," British diplomat Michael Tatham wrote Thursday in an email to his Security Council counterparts, including the U.S., China, France, and Russia. The U.N.'s public affairs office, he added, "has reviewed the scripts for these episodes and judged them to be appropriate."

The British delegation -- which will hold the presidency of the 15-nation council in August, the month that House of Cards' producers wanted to schedule their shoot -- urged council members to raise any objections by Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. or consider the request approved.

A Russian diplomat, Mikael Agasandyan, answered less than a half-hour before the deadline.

"Upon thorough reflection, we are objecting to the proposed filming in the Security Council," Agasandyan wrote in an email to council members late Tuesday afternoon. "We are of [the] opinion that the Security Council premises should be available at any time and on short notice. Besides that, we consistently insist that the Security Council premises are not an appropriate place for filming, staging, etc."

Technically, Russia's action doesn't amount to a formal veto, which can only be cast in response to a vote on an issue. But with most of the council's procedural decisions made by consensus, a decision to break consensus has the same effect.

Despite Russia's strenuous objections, some council diplomats were still holding out hope that Moscow might reconsider, noting that it once objected to a proposal by Norway -- which recently underwrote the financial costs of the Security Council's renovation -- to host a Security Council inauguration ceremony, only to subsequently relent. "Not sure it is completely off the table," said one council diplomat. "There still might be some discussion going on.... But I might be wrong."

China also expressed reservations about the virtue of filming the series in the Security Council. But it left open the door to reconsider if the council's members were granted script approval.

"I think Mikael's argument is reasonable," wrote Bo Shen, a political counsellor at the Chinese mission to the United Nations, referring to the Russian decision to block filming. He said China's officials "think council members should have a rough idea on scripts for those episodes which are relating to our work. DPI [The U.N. Department of Public Information] judged them to be appropriate but could not represent views of council members. Based on that, we regard the current information are insufficient before making a decision by the council."

House of Cards is immensely popular in China. But it has also shed an unflattering light on the country, including a storyline that had Underwood orchestrating shady land deals with a corrupt Chinese businessman. Though the program's harshest criticism is directly most sharply at America's political class, which it portrays as scheming, backbiting, and fundamentally corrupt.

The U.N. Security Council has previously allowed the council chamber to be used for an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot of then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for Vogue magazine and for the filming of a French diplomatic comedy, Quai D'Orsay, by the French director Bertrand Tavernier.

The U.N sought to assure the council that filming would take place only late at night and over the weekend, and that the U.N. would ensure that filming would never be allowed to interrupt any emergency sessions of the council. The shooting was planned for mid-August, when most of the council's top ambassadors are vacationing.

"The [U.N.] Secretariat have informed me that the production company that produces the American political drama House of Cards has requested permission to film interior scenes for two episodes of its third season in the United Nations complex: inside the Security Council and in the Delegates Lounge," Tatham wrote. "The scenes to be filmed on location would depict a meeting of the Security Council, as well as depicting behind the scenes discussion between ambassadors before and after the council meeting.... The executive office of the secretary-general also supports this request."

The request comes at a time when the U.N. has been actively courting Hollywood filmmakers in an effort to harness the film industries' power to reach billions of viewers around the world, and hopefully to promote a positive image of the United Nations. In an effort to win over the Security Council, U.N. officials informed them that Netflix has global reach, with more than 44 million subscribers in 41 countries.

Unfortunately, those numbers can't stand up to the power of a single Russian nyet.

Kevin Winter/ Getty Images