NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden: The psychology of an international fugitive revealed by the man who brought down Barings Bank

As he tries to elude arrest, Edward Snowden’s heart will be pounding and his palms sweating, writes Nick Leeson, the man who brought down Barings Bank and someone who knows what it is like to be the world’s most-wanted

Holed up somewhere in the “transit zone” at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, Edward Snowden is being sought by journalists, diplomats and his former employers at the US National Security Agency.

Like I was for three or four days in February 1995, he is the subject of a manhunt that is making news across the world. While I have no great interest in what Snowden is alleged to have done, I do have sympathy with his current predicament. He is living on his nerves, trying desperately to work out what his options are and make the right decisions. His position has so many imponderables that he will have no real idea what he will be doing in the next few hours, far less what will be happening in the coming days.

His options are very limited. The pressure has been mounting for some time – since before he fled – and the level of control that he has over  his own situation has been slowly reducing. The moment he went on the run, what remaining control he had left almost completely disappeared.

You go from having a plan, albeit poorly thought out, to being in a situation where you are relying on others for assistance. I fled Singapore on 23 February 1995. The date is engrained in the memory. Since the beginning of that year the pressure had slowly been mounting and more and more questions were being asked about my activity. Up until the beginning of 1995, I had grown comfortable with the questioning. I suppose I was largely treating it with contempt as it really wasn’t as challenging as it should have been.

The web of lies was growing but perversely enough I still felt as though I was in control. The day of reckoning was always coming and whilst I was cognisant of the fact that the pressure was turning up, I was never sure of when that day was going to come. In the end, it was the most simple of questions about my operation that was going to point towards a huge hole in the balance sheet and a huge problem. This is where pure animal instinct takes over and, regardless of anything else that is happening, self-preservation becomes the only focus. Anybody or anything in your way is likely to get trampled and pushed readily aside.

This tipping point is something that Edward Snowden will have experienced recently: the point when he decided to flee and seek solace elsewhere. With his background in security measures, you would expect that he has planned somewhat to this eventuality, but the extent to which he did may have been blindsided by the need to run.

Until it happened, I still thought I had weeks to resolve the situation. In my case, the call came through at 3pm on a Thursday, asking me to explain the discrepancy between the positions held at the exchange and those contained on the company’s books and records. At the time I would have been looking forward to the weekend purely as a little respite from the threat of being uncovered. In very simple terms the start of the week was always the scariest as you had five days to survive. By the end of the week, you were able to think about breathing more normally.

But by 4pm that day I was at home and packing a bag, throwing in a very disjointed explanation to my wife of why we needed to leave in such a hurry. The safe was emptied, the little money we had stuffed into pockets, and by half past four we were at Changi airport booking the only available flight out of the country, to Kuala Lumpur. At that point I had no handle over the extent of the losses, how calamitous my actions were going to be, or how much damage I was going to leave in my wake. The only focus was on getting myself out of the immediate vicinity.

This was the first of six plane journeys I took over the next couple of days, and with each the pressure would mount and the hurdles that I faced would be ratcheted up another notch. Sleep came in fits and starts and normally through absolute exhaustion rather than any ability to recuperate in a normal manner. 

The plan as it stood was to remove myself from the immediate jurisdiction and then to meet up with a fellow trader at the weekend in Phuket to try to collate and understand what had happened. But within an hour of landing in Kuala Lumpur that plan was thrown out of the window as there were no flights to Phuket and we immediately went into hiding.

Malaysia shares a border with Singapore, and I was keen to get as far away as I could, as quickly as possible. The only flight we could get was to Kota Kinabalu, as remote as you could get within Malaysia but far from accessible when you were looking at an  international flight. It was here that the story of the collapse of Barings Bank started to hit the news wires and I went from fairly inconspicuous floor trader to the most internationally wanted man of the time.

I made a few calls back to friends in Singapore who I thought I could trust, and watched the television intermittently to see the extent of the losses and the fallout that ensued. The story was very quickly on every news channel. We changed hotels within 24 hours, leaving the five-star Shangri-La resort and checking in to something less mainstream. I rarely left the room, and at times I would feel the walls moving in and out in time with my breathing.

I knew I needed to leave Asia as quickly as possible, more for my wife’s safety than my own. I had a number of questions to answer but she was completely in the dark about what had happened, and I was doing very little to enlighten her. We held hands, cried and laughed, sometimes all at the same time. It was the most surreal of experiences but quickly my attention returned to flight. The next day I booked tickets to the first available Western destination, which happened to be Frankfurt.

What would happen when we got there was something that I could deal with tomorrow. That was the extent of the plan – and its easy to see similarities with Snowden’s flight. He is thinking on his feet, responding to what he sees in front of him and trying to put himself in as much safety as he can, as quickly as he can.

His route has clearly not been well thought out, or he would have sought out sanctuary before boarding the plane, and gone straight there rather than the convoluted manner with which he has arrived in Moscow.

The next hurdle for me was passing through border control at Kota Kinabalu airport. Surely they knew where I was and were looking for my passport. As you step towards the gate, your stomach is in bits, your head is pounding and your hands are constantly clammy from the sweat. It simply doesn’t stop.

You look at the border guard as if he is your mortal enemy and only one of you can survive. I ushered my wife forward, she passed through the gate and sat on the other side. I was waiting for the rush of policemen, ready to push me to the floor in the euphoria attached with catching such a wanted man. I was in a daze, waiting for the inevitable. It never happened.

Punch drunk, not really sure of where I was, I staggered through the gate and sat in the farthest corner I could find. My head was now filled with the slow tick-tock of my watch as the seconds and minutes passed until we could board the plane. The first stop was in Brunei, where we had to disembark for an eight-hour stop. Brunei airport is circular and the gates are all tentacles leading out from the body. Above each gate was a television set tuned into CNN. The lead story every 15 minutes was Nick Leeson and the collapse of Barings Bank. The pictures were old but it was clearly me. It was like a mad psychedelic trip: my face was everywhere and as far as I was concerned everyone was looking at me. They weren’t, but I couldn’t stay here.

Within the transit area there was a short-stay hotel; we booked a room for the eight hours of the stopover and never left the room. Eight hours later, the same televisions above the gates bore my picture, but the pictures were getting newer. I tugged a baseball cap lower and lower on my head, pulled up the collar on my jersey and looked only at the floor. My wife almost had to push me toward the gate. My heart was racing, my blood pressure must have been at a record high, but once again I managed to get on the flight.

As soon as we boarded the flight, we were handed newspapers, and whether you received Le Monde, Suddeutsche Zeitung, the Asian Wall Street Journal or the South China Morning Post, my face was on the front page of each. Three hundred and fifty passengers were eagerly reading about the latest financial scandal, two were hidden in their seats, blanket up to the ears and baseball hats on their heads. We couldn’t have been less undercover if we tried; in reality we stuck out like sore thumbs.

Edward Snowden, wherever he turns, will see his face staring back at him. Everyone will be whispering in corners and the paranoia that everyone is talking about him will be raging through his mind.

Athletes need to focus all of their energy into short periods of time when they are at the top of their ability to perform. At the moment, as he sits in Moscow, Snowden will be experiencing a similar level of exertion every minute of every day.

In time, he’ll be looking for clarity and confidence in what the future holds. For his sake I hope that he has thought out his plan far better than I ever did, but closure of this episode will bring with it a point from which he can move forward.

Nick Leeson is a regular guest on the after-dinner and keynote speaking circuit. He is represented by NMP Live Speaker Bureau – www.nmplive.co.uk

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