Frank Deford, the venerable American sportswriter, once famously wrote that "professional wrestling is clean and everything else in the world is fixed." Deford should perhaps be considered a sharp observer of U.S. foreign policy as well, since the line aptly describes the wrestling match between Moscow and Washington over National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's flight to Russia.
While Snowden's odyssey from Hawaii to Hong Kong to Moscow is bizarre enough in its own right, it pales in comparison to the kabuki dance between the two superpowers over his fate. First there was the straight-faced insistence from Washington that Snowden is an accused felon and thus must be returned to face American justice. Attorney General Eric Holder even gave his assurances that Snowden will not face the death penalty.
On the Russian side, after equally straight-faced bobbing and weaving on whether Snowden was even on Russian soil, or would be granted asylum, President Vladimir Putin declared Snowden may remain in Russia for awhile, provided he "stop his work aimed at harming our American partners." After another month of exaggerated legal hammerlocks, Snowden's Russian attorney finally sprang him from airport limbo, popped him into a waiting cab, and disappeared him into his new Mother Russia.
It's probably safe to say now that most of this back and forth was purely for public consumption.
American intelligence must have known and advised the White House, the Justice Department, and the Congress that the Russians would ultimately provide Snowden some form of safe harbor. Handing him back to the United States was never a serious option. Russian intelligence, and that would include former KGB officer and now President Putin, understands the chilling effect turning Snowden back would have on whatever prospective U.S. turncoat might be waiting in the wings, ready to hand over American secrets to Moscow's spymasters. And yes, let us assume these prospective turncoats are out there.
In the long history of the spy game between these two adversaries, the intelligence volunteer -- the willing turncoat -- motivated by money, revenge, lust, or simply boredom has always been the central character. And the Russian and U.S. intelligence services have built their crafts around the handling of the next volunteer, the next intelligence goldmine, whether it is an Aldrich Ames or a Robert Hanssen crossing over from our side, or an Adolf Tolkachev coming to us from theirs.