Book Review: The Snowden Operation (2014) by Edward Lucas

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 1, 2014


 “Snowden is a pawn in a hostile and continuing intelligence and information-warfare operation

So concludes Edward Lucas in a fascinating and easy-to-read brief look at the greatest intelligence disaster the West has ever experienced.

The story of Edward Snowden as a conscience-wracked employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) who was moved to steal 1.7 million documents, leak some of them to the global press, and then flee to Russia, quite by accident, because of the overweening hand of American security services, just does not stand up to investigation. The primary reason for this is: the Snowden exposures have unearthed no wrong-doing. To be more precise: when they expose mistakes made by the intelligence agencies they also expose a vast and effective oversight mechanism that has corrected these mistakes. Lucas gives the following example:

Since 2011 some 56,000 e-mails of ‘US persons’ have been improperly read, a judgment from the FISA court reveals. But it is worth noting, first, that this was a list of errors which the NSA itself logged and reported—hardly the sign of a systematic cover-up or intentional abuse. Second, as a share of total e-mail traffic, measured in many billions, the number is vanishingly small.”

In truth,

the really striking thing about the revelations to date (which are presumably cherry-picked to portray the NSA and its allies in the worst possible light) is the conscientious, tame and bureaucratic approach they reveal.”

Lucas notes the unseemliness of “civil liberties” activists campaigning against their own government for not living up to its democratic values while arrogating to themselves sole discretion on which secret programs should be exposed. Flawed as elected governments may be, they are damn sight better than unelected activists motivated by a hatred of the culture that shelters them in judging what is and is not in the interests of national security. This unseemliness grows more apparent still when these activists all move so closely in the orbit of a dictatorship like Vladimir Putin’s.

Some of the problem with the Snowdenistas is simple ignorance and/or zealotry. There is a view among some of them that opposes the very idea of intelligence agencies and its axiomatic need for secrecy. (Something not dissimilar was seen with WikiLeaks, where diplomacy in toto as it has been practiced these many centuries, was the target—or at any rate, American diplomacy.) America’s view of all foreign citizens as fair game for its intelligence agencies is, in fact, the position of that nebulous thing we call “international law”. More importantly, it is the position of every State on earth. Unlike notably China and France, the U.S. does not use its intelligence services for economic espionage. The only thing the U.S. has ever done even in this realm is expose European companies, which habitually win contracts by bribery because their industry is so backward, to level the playing field to American competition. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist through whom Snowden has leaked much of this material, has been loud in condemning U.S. espionage against Russian “companies” like Gazprom, claiming this is industrial espionage. Again this either wilfully misleading or incredibly naïve: Russia’s State energy industries are political instruments of the regime, enriching its elite and being used in foreign policy.

But look at what the Snowden Operation has done. It revealed how many cyber-attacks the U.S. has carried out. It revealed key missing parts of intelligence on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons transport (not a trivial matter given that the regime moves them around in civilian traffic), on China’s military capabilities, and Russia’s intentions on internal instability—information Islamabad, Peking, and Moscow were no doubt pleased to have. It damaged the reputation of the Five Eyes intelligence services, making recruits less likely. It has damaged relations in the Western Hemisphere by revealing that the U.S. and Canada spied on Brazil. It damaged Australia’s relations with Indonesia by revealing that Canberra used its agencies to track Islamic terrorists and other threats on Indonesian soil, something Indonesia lacks the capabilities to do for itself. And it tried to damage American relations with Sweden and Norway, both States that have very real fears from Russia. The leaks revealed no wrong-doing in Scandinavia, either by NSA or the governments, but it was presented as if something untoward had happened. Indeed the entire saga has seen the Snowdenistas use “a level of spin that verges on the hysterical, and doses of accidental or deliberate misinterpretation”. These revelations damaged Euro-American diplomatic relations and incited public suspicions that achieved only one thing: damage to Western security. Meanwhile, “Nothing so far in their revelations has cast non-Western, authoritarian regimes in a bad light.”

The wedge this episode has driven between America and Europe, especially Germany, is the crucial aspect. The recent fiasco with the exposure of U.S. spies in Germany has its roots in something much more troubling: Those American spies had embedded in the German security apparatus to try to protect the Western alliance—including Germany—from Russia, which has heavily penetrated the German system, but those very Russian agents the U.S. was looking for were able to expose the Americans. This did further damage to U.S.-German relations, a key interest of the Kremlin’s, which had been begun with the Snowden Operation. Key figures in the WikiLeaks family, which was the initial point of entry for Snowden, hacker Jacob Appelbaum and film-maker Laura Poitras, actually live in Germany. When David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, was arrested in London (and found with an incredible amount of purloined data on flash-drives) he had just come from Berlin, where he had been “work[ing] with” Poitras.

The record of Moscow’s intelligence agencies in trying to sow division in the Atlantic alliance is long. From 1977 onward, stoking the anti-nuclear campaigns, which reached their crescendo in the early 1980s, was a major effort. Vic Allen, a senior member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), unashamedly admitted after the fall of the Berlin Wall to passing information to the Stasi. Russian defectors claim the KGB directed the anti-nuclear campaign. Even if it wasn’t that direct, the role of the European Communist parties—all funded to various degrees by Moscow with likewise varying degrees of closeness to Soviet intelligence—was disproportionate to their small numbers. (Even to this day, the last chair of CND, Kate Hudson, was a member of the Communist Party.) Lucas thinks the closest analogue to the Snowden Operation is the leaks in the 1990s around ECHELON that led to a report by the European Parliament and damaged U.S.-European relations. There’s also more than an echo of Philip Agee in this matter. From his perch in Cuba, Agee’s leaks over many years crippled many CIA programs in the 1970s and 80s while he claimed to be merely a whistleblower. Now we know better: he was not only a Soviet and Cuban agent, in receipt of large pay from them, but the KGB did most of the writing attributed to him.

Snowden’s postings under the name “TheTrueHOOHA” are unusual—and Lucas doesn’t just mean the “Wolfking Awesomefox” business. It was unusual enough that a CIA contractor in Geneva, where Snowden was sent in 2007, would engage in these posts at all—an ideologically or personally dissatisfied person is a “beacon” to the other side—but they cut off at the very point Snowden is clearly becoming more radical. Such people usually like to share their views. Unless they’ve been told not to, like the subscribers to the Communist papers and parties in Europe who were told by the KGB to unsubscribe and pose as reactionaries to enter the establishment.

Lucas mentions the “false flag” approach at which the Russians specialise: in the Cold War this meant approaching intelligence officers dissatisfied with their country’s prosecution of the Cold War as if they were more anti-Soviet than they—often posing as South African intelligence agents—and gradually prying small secrets out of them, then larger ones. Once it was past the point of return they could reveal they were KGB and just use straightforward blackmail to keep it going or they could continue the ruse. If Snowden was recruited online, as seems conceivable, he might not have known what was happening until it was too late. (As to what we should think of his intellectual capacity if he can be recruited in this way is another story.)

Snowden left Geneva for Japan in 2009 to work for Dell, where he checked computers on a military base—less fun than being with the CIA in Geneva. Also less oversight; less chance of being shown to be ideologically and personally close with the WikiLeaks team. One thing Lucas mentions in passing, which really does deserve an answer, is Snowden’s week-long trip to India in September 2010. He claims it was an “ethical hacking” course, which was not declared to his employers and which he would surely have been barred from attending had he done so. The course was not needed for his job. Russian intelligence has a notoriously easy time of it in India: much safer to meet a source there than in Geneva or Japan.

In March 2013, Snowden went to Hawaii to be a systems administrator for NSA contractor Booz Allen. We know from none other than Glenn Greenwald that Snowden took the job with the express intent of stealing State secrets. He also seems to have gotten passwords from more than twenty of his co-workers—”the behaviour of a spy, not a whistleblower.”

It’s also not the behaviour of a whistleblower to refuse to exhaust all legal channels before leaking. Despite Snowden’s repeated claims of having multiple times complained up the chain-of-command and been told to “stop asking questions,” in fact he sent one email, asking for clarification on an anodyne point of Executive authority, in April 2013, which if you’re keeping score is months after he began stealing secret documents and offering them to Glenn Greenwald in December 2012. Lucas points out that real whistleblowers seek deliberately to limit the scope of the damage they do. If Snowden had just published documents on the NSA warehousing meta-data of phone records or had actually demonstrated that the NSA was promoting software with deliberate security faults then he would have had a public-interest defence. Lucas is very critical of the Obama administration’s ultra-hawkish attitude to leakers, and there is every chance, under such circumstances, the public would have been too, and even in the case of a conviction there would have been a pardon. Instead,

[Snowden] has not shown systematic abuse, only secrecy and mistakes. He has harmed and weakened his country and its allies (indeed, for some Snowdenistas, this is a stated aim). He has stolen far more information than was necessary to make the case he purports to want to make. Why?

Some facts obtrude themselves. Appelbaum was in Hawaii in March 2013 for a hacker conference, the SBoC (Spring Break of Code). As mentioned, by this time Snowden was already in contact with Greenwald and Poitras. Applebaum claims he first heard from Poitras in May 2013 when she revealed that she had a source in the NSA. Perhaps. When Snowden first met these characters is still unknown but their presence all at the same time in Hawaii is interesting. Lucas quotes the American academic and blogger Craig Pirrong who suggests that this meeting was organised to give these people a plausible reason for converging on Hawaii; Pirrong notes that with Snowden’s computing background it is much more likely that he would have reached out to the hacker Applebaum than Poitras first.

The real mystery—for those who believe the Ed-as-whistleblower story, anyway—comes in Hong Kong. First, why go to Hong Kong? Snowden, who has long-mediated his plan, apparently suddenly botches the end-game and ends up, quite by accident, in territory controlled by the premier cyber-security threat to the Western World, where even his most sophisticated efforts at cyber-security are utterly futile. Then there are the actions up to Snowden’s arrival in Moscow. Lucas mentions that there is a Russian report that Snowden celebrated his 30th birthday with Kremlin spies diplomats in the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong. Once in Moscow, Snowden’s lawyer is Anatoly Kucherena, founder of the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, a pro-Kremlin think-tank which aims to counter Western rhetoric on human rights. Snowden apparently works but nobody knows where. Or where he lives. Nor does he give press conferences free of FSB oversight. (When German Green Party MP Hans-Christian Ströbele went to Moscow to meet Snowden, German intelligence concluded that the interview took place in a “typical room of the … FSB.”)

“None of this inspires confidence in the idea that he is a free agent. It supports the theory that he is a Russian one,” writes Lucas, concluding that while the assembled information does not “prove that any of the above-mentioned people are conscious agents of the Russian state, and I am not accusing them of that … they do not need to be.” As he puts it, “this affair has Kremlin fingerprints on it. They may be faint and smudged, but they are there.” The long Russian record with Active Measures would bear this out—all that’s needed is an introduction here, a steer there—and zealots can be largely trusted to do as Moscow wishes without its direction, though there is always an intelligence officer in the background just to keep an eye on things.

If there is any part of the book with which I would quibble it would be this last part. Snowden’s movements bespeak somebody more intimately connected with Russia than this. Look at the timeline from Hong Kong.

Snowden arrives on May 20, 2013. He goes completely missing—no credit card traces, nothing—until June 1; a professional disappearance. Snowden told Glenn Greenwald that he had been “holed up” in his room at the Mira Hotel, but that isn’t true. Hotel staff have confirmed to at least two separate reporters that Snowden only arrived on June 1 before meeting with Greenwald on June 3. The first Greenwald story based on the Snowden material was released on June 9.

It is known is that Snowden made contact with Vladimir Putin’s emissaries in the time-period he was missing because Putin himself confirmed it in an interview last September. “I will tell you something I have never said before,” said the Russian tyrant, Snowden “first went to Hong Kong and got in touch with our diplomatic representatives.” In short, Putin was in direct contact with his agents on the ground and Snowden was already a Russian agent. How do we know this? Because no intelligence agency in the world—least of all the Russians—takes a walk-in to its capital city a month after coming across them, as Russia did with Snowden, who landed in Moscow on June 23 and was granted asylum on August 1.

The story the Snowdenistas have told of Snowden’s passport being revoked as he was in Russia en route to Latin America, and thus he had to stay, is bunk: his passport was revoked on June 22 and he travelled to Moscow on documents given to him by Ecuador—itself suggestive, given that Quito is presently harbouring Julian Assange in its Embassy in London. Moreover, WikiLeaks has confessed that it told Snowden to go to Russia: he was never meant to go anywhere else. Lucas suggests Snowden might have been “bounced” into seeking asylum in Russia, and this seems plausible: surrounded by WikiLeaks and other Russian cut-outs in Hong Kong, Snowden lost his autonomy long before he found himself imprisoned in Moscow.

The real question in all this becomes: When did Snowden go over to the Russians? Both the former CIA officer and author Robert Baer and a KGB defector have said 2007, when Snowden was in Geneva.

There are two further things that deserve more attention. One is the Canadian traitor Jeffrey Delisle, whose exposure in late 2012 showed that the Five Eyes system had already been deeply compromised by Russia. The other is the roll-up of the Russian spy-ring in 2010. As former NSA counterintelligence officer John Schindler, who has probably done the most work on the Russian aspect of the Snowden leaks, explained, in the aftermath of Anna Chapman and her comrades being exposed, a mole-hunt was begun, and while “[t]here were actually several Russian moles said to be embedded inside the Intelligence Community, including at least one at NSA … it appears that those individuals have not been caught.”

At what point Snowden entered into Russia’s efforts against the NSA and how he fits together with the rest of the campaign, we may never know. But to ask is to at least be on track toward the truth. The present situation of a lauding a traitor and defector as a defender of our freedoms is rather hard to stomach, and Lucas’ book is an excellent antidote to that most distressing tendency of liberal societies: masochism.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Snowden Operation (2014) by Edward Lucas

  1. Janet W.

    That’s all well and good. But what about the broader picture. Of which Snowden seems to be the tip of the iceberg. What about the stories of William Binney, Thomas Drake, et al? Much coverage about this from multiple sources on YouTube. What book can you write on that?

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