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Column: Edward Snowden Faces a Sad and Lonely Future in Exile

Edward Snowden, the man behind the disclosure of secret documents on U.S. surveillance activities, faces a sad and lonely future. Germany’s asylum denial and the White House’s rejection of clemency for the former National Security Agency-contractor-turned-whistle-blower, foreshadows a life on the run. His mediocre career and one-page “manifesto” suggest limited prospects as a turncoat spook or as a critic of U.S. spy agencies. More important, history shows life isn’t kind to U.S. intelligence insiders gone rogue.

The story of Central Intelligence Agency operative Philip Agee sheds light on what kind of future Snowden can expect. Agee was the Edward Snowden of the pre-Internet generation. He gained attention for writing Inside the Company: CIA Diary, an account of his days as a spy (mostly in Latin America) and the first of five books in an anti-CIA campaign in the 1970s and 1980s during which he outed a world-wide network of more than 4,000 covert operatives.

As with Snowden, many journalists, left-wing governments and other U.S. detractors initially hailed Agee as a hero. But soon the world became less welcoming. Agee was well received in Britain where he fought a U.S. extradition request until he was forced to leave for the Netherlands in 1977. He was eventually expelled from the Netherlands and a host of other U.S.-friendly nations, such as France, Italy and West Germany, and lived in Grenada and Nicaragua before finally settling in Cuba under Fidel Castro (the type of regime he once worked to undermine).

Snowden has pointed to the need for reviews of U.S. intelligence operations to justify his decision to leak to the press details of a mass telephone and Internet surveillance program by U.S. spy agencies. But that will hardly win him clemency. Indeed, in Agee’s case several U.S. administrations showed an inclination to make his life hell. Agee’s exposes prompted U.S. lawmakers to enact the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which criminalized unmasking covert agents. Moreover, Snowden could expect the United States to eventually strip him of his passport as Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance did with Agee in 1979. (Secretary of State George Shultz denied Agee a passport again in 1987.)

Snowden has also exposed himself to charges that could haunt him his entire life. Just as Agee’s detractors often attributed the death of CIA Athens station head Richard Welch to his leaks, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers has already blamed Snowden’s revelations for a change in how several terrorist organizations communicate.

The career prospects for Snowden look even bleaker. He could write a book, but there is only so much more that Snowden could reveal. Agee was a brilliant graduate from the University of Notre Dame and had an 11-year experience as an agent stationed in Ecuador, Uruguay and Mexico before he left to write his books. After Agee’s exposes, Shultz accused him of being a paid adviser to Cuban intelligence and of training Nicaraguan security agents. But that is hardly an open career path for the 30-year-old Snowden, a high-school dropout with limited spy-craft experience.

Agee became a convinced leftist who sought to help U.S. enemy regimes during the Cold War. Snowden’s belief that his leaks will help end what he calls the U.S.’s “harmful behavior” shows a lack of sophistication. As technology evolves, so will the ability of governments to spy on each other.

Even a man of Agee’s intelligence was left with no options late in life. For a few years before his death in Havana in 2008, Agee ran Cubalinda.com, an online travel agency that catered to Americans adventurous enough to visit to Cuba in defiance of the U.S. trade embargo. If Snowden can somehow avoid capture and jail, he has little more to look forward to than a lifetime in the shadows, or as the anti-U.S. trophy of regimes where the freedom of information he claims to defend doesn’t exist.

Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for Bloomberg View’s World View blog.