If you follow me on Twitter or happen to be friends with me on Facebook, then you know I don’t think very much of Mr. Edward Snowden. From the beginning of this story, I have said that Snowden is more like Phillip Agee, than Daniel Ellsberg. I do not consider him a whistleblower, but rather an agent of a hostile power, in this case Moscow.
It occurred to me the other day, however, that I’ve never set down in writing the precise nature of my concerns about Snowden and his actions. Now that Snowden is doing propaganda shorts for the Russians and the Guardian has joined Walter Duranty as a Pulitzer Prize winner, I figured I should say a few words about why I don’t think Snowden is on the level.
I have long been interested in intelligence for personal and professional reasons. On a personal basis, I am a lapsed philosopher concerned largely with questions of epistemology — how we know things. Intelligence is a fascinating area of applied epistemology. Since one is primarily concerned with secrets — things you are not supposed to know — determining whether something in the intelligence realm is true or not is pretty interesting. One labors under all kinds of arbitrary constraints on knowing, from official secrecy, unreliable first person accounts, inferences based on imagery and other data, and finally the possibility that the other side is feeding disinformation into the system. The “wilderness of mirrors” that drove James Jesus Angleton insane is precisely what I find most interesting.
On a professional basis, most of what we know about foreign nuclear weapons programs comes from intelligence. Understanding national security decision making requires understanding the intelligence process that informs (or fails to inform) those decisions. The fiasco in Iraq is the obvious example, but there are others. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrohkin’s The Sword and Shield offers a pretty damning picture of how the Soviet intelligence service controlled the Politbureau by controlling the flow of information to its members.
So, I think a lot about spies, and spying.
Before I start on Ed Snowden, I should say a few things about Soviet, and now Russian, intelligence services.
First, Moscow and its friendly intelligence services run spies, as does the United States. Intelligence agencies also collect defectors. This may seem obvious, but it is worth remembering that Rick Ames and Robert Hansen really were on Moscow’s payroll. (To say nothing of the illegals then and now.) The Cubans ran Anna Montes, and happily supported Phillip Agee. Although calling someone a spy or traitor is a distressingly common political tactic, that does not mean that there are not spies and traitors. Joe McCarthy was a demagogue who made many false accusations. That doesn’t mean that the Rosenbergs, or Alger Hiss, were innocent.
Second, Moscow has an irritating tendency to try and weasel its way into Western groups that favor peace and disarmament. The most famous instance is the Generals for Peace in the 1980s — none of whom realized the East Germans were funding their activities. Despite what the extreme right-wing will tell you, the vast majority of civil society groups, including peace and disarmament groups, are impervious to Russian efforts — but those of us interested in a better world have all been approached by the odd Russian “diplomat” who wants to discuss friendship between our two countries. Once in a while, the Russians find a fool who doesn’t give the so-called diplomat’s business card straight to the FBI.
Third, Moscow and its friendly intelligence services would often encourage individuals to seek specific positions to gather intelligence. The Cubans, for instance, encouraged Anna Montes to leave the Department of Justice for other jobs with greater access to classified information. She ended up at the Defense Intelligence Agency. The Soviets did the same with Christopher Boyce (aka The Falcon), encouraging him to learn Russian or Chinese, then get a job in intelligence. (FYI: Boyce thinks Snowden is a kindred spirit. No kidding.)
Fourth, the Russians tend to launder intelligence to hide sources of information. So, for example, Robert Hansen apparently betrayed in 1980 a GRU officer named Dmitri Polyakov who was working for the United States. Moscow did not act against Polyakov until he was compromised a second time by Aldrich Ames in 1985. When Ames was arrested, the question of who gave up Polyakov to the Soviets seemed clear — even though it wasn’t.
Now, about Mr. Snowden. I find his story curious. It goes something like this:
- In 2007, Snowden worked for the CIA in Geneva, where he soured on the methods of the United States intelligence community. He considered leaking some information but holds off.
- In 2009, Snowden took a job working for an NSA contractor in Japan. His disappointment with Obama hardened his resolve to leak information.
- In 2013, he took a job with Booz Allen in Hawaii for the express purpose of collecting US secrets that he will leak.
- After three months, in May 2013, he fled to Hong Kong because it has a strong commitment to free speech.
- After Hong Kong made it clear he must leave, Wikileaks arranged asylum and travel documents to Ecuador. But the United States canceled his passport, which meant Moscow was legally bound to prevent his transit to safe harbor in Ecuador.
- After being stranded in the transit zone by the United States cancellation of his passport, he has no choice but to ask the Russians for asylum.
- His travel companion, Sarah Harrison, who does have valid travel documents, is allowed to remain in Russia through at least October 2013. (She goes to Germany in November 2013.)
This story makes no sense if you stop to think about it.
In 2007, Snowden is ready to leak — about what exactly? He hasn’t worked for NSA yet. He admits that he has only information about ”people, not machines and systems.”
The claim about Obama is also ridiculous. By the time Obama was the most likely Democratic nominee in mid-2008, he publicly supported the very FISA deal that was the subject of Snowden’s first leak. (Greenwald will remember this as he launched a shameful campaign against Mort Halperin for supporting the same compromise, falsely accusing Halperin of trading his principles for a job in the Obama Administration.) The “Obama has feet of clay” line is just hand-waving to distract those of us on the left who were disappointed by the balance struck by the Obama Administration on national security and civil liberties. Oh, Ed, we understand where you are coming from. Barack Obama is just so disappointing, that I want to flee to Russia … oh, wait, that is insane.
The fact that Snowden sought jobs for the express purpose of collecting secrets ought to be a major red flag — why not just leak what he had from Japan that caused his attitude to “harden”? Snowden’s behavior after Geneva seems awfully similar to how the Cubans handled Anna Montes, going from one job to another, taking requests for information.
And the flight to Hong Kong? He said he fled to Hong Kong because it “has a strong tradition of free speech.” Oh, for f*ck’s sake. Does he know anything about Hong Kong? Does he know its not a British colony any more?
And transiting Moscow? The US canceled his passport, true. But the Russians could have let him go to Ecuador. They stopped him because he is an amazing intelligence prize.
By the way, Snowden had other options: Hong Kong has direct flights to Jakarta — Indonesia is a democratic, non-aligned country which has no extradition treaty with the United States and a population that was genuinely upset by US intelligence efforts in that country. But no — Ecuador, via Moscow and Havana, seemed like a much better idea to him.
Then we are supposed to believe the Russians, having detained him in transit, left him in the Sheremetyevo transit zone without debriefing him. Right, and his Russian lawyer doesn’t run pro-Kremlin astroturf NGOs.
The same officious Russians, suddenly all Swiss about paperwork, do however allow Sarah Harrison — the Wikileaks representative who accompanied him to Moscow — to remain in Russia with no visa. I’ve been asking on Twitter and Facebook for months how and why she was still in Russia, but no reporters seem interested in that little wrinkle. Harrison finally announced that she can’t return to the UK, but why? What crime did she commit by meeting with Snowden or taking a flight from Hong Kong to Ecuador? Liz Gold comes to mind, though perhaps that gives her too much credit.
The suspension of disbelief necessary to swallow this story is impressive.
Let me offer a completely speculative scenario based on no evidence at all, just past behavior of Soviet and Russian intelligence. My only question is whether this is more, or less, plausible than Snowden’s story.
A young CIA employee in Geneva becomes disillusioned and, one way or another, finds himself taking money from the Russians. Maybe he saw some bad things. Maybe he’s just the sort of disgruntled employee who starts spying because it gratifies his sense that he’s smarter than the people around and above him.
The Russians encourage him to get a job at an NSA contractor in Japan, then a contractor in Hawaii — just as the Cubans and Soviets encourages Montes and Boyce to seek certain jobs.
He collects a lot of information, much of which is very harmful to the United States, if published. This information is most harmful if, like Phillip Agee’s memoir, the author is seen as a “whistleblower” not a defector. Snowden goes to Hong Kong, where the Russians can handle him from the consulate. After giving information to the Chinese, he heads to Moscow. The whole story with Ecuador and Wikileaks simply allows Snowden to keep up the pretense of being a whistleblower “stuck” in Russia, where he’s useful propaganda tool.
In this version of events, some of what Snowden reveals, he collected. But Moscow can also safely launder information collected from other sources through Snowden. They might even make up a few things.
I have no way of knowing whether Snowden’s version or this very generic spy story is true. But Snowden’s version is a hell of lot harder to believe. There are other possibilities — maybe Snowden did find himself in Hong Kong, way over his head, only to have Wikileaks deliver him to the Russians. (Notice who had serious money problems, but now is flush after someone got a television show on RT and his political party took Moscow’s line on Ukraine?) In this version, Wikileaks is just the Communist Party USA, funded from Moscow and Snowden is a dupe.
As best I can tell, the United States intelligence community does not think Snowden was a Russian asset, but I am with Edward Lucas on this.
Whatever his motives, Snowden had another option: If Snowden had limited his disclosures to the truly newsworthy — such as revealing abuses conducted under the 2008 FISA reauthorization — instead of targeting legitimate intelligence activities and if Snowden, like Ellsberg, had given the information to a member of Congress like Ron Wyden and remained in the United States to face the music, he’d be a whistleblower and hero.
But, instead, each thing he has done since fleeing the United States, from the scope of his disclosures to his softball questions to Vladimir Putin, persuade me that he is not acting in the best interests of our democracy.