INSIDE THE WEST'S GREATEST INTELLIGENCE DISASTER AT NSA
THE SNOWDEN OPERATION
INSIDE THE WEST'S GREATEST INTELLIGENCE DISASTER
Some of my most respected colleagues tell a story that goes like this: Edward
Snowden had a well-paid post inside American intelligence, as a contractor
for the NSA. Disillusioned by the discovery that his employers and their
allies engaged in mass collection of details of private communications, he
took a cache of secret documents detailing this appalling behaviour and shared
them with media outlets across the world. The noble crusader was bravely
risking his career and freedom in the pursuit of truth and transparency—a
sacrifice that has made him a worthy candidate for man of the year
awards,1 and for canonisation as a secular saint.
This book tells a different story. My reading of the facts is that Snowden
is a 'useful idiot'.2 His theft and publication of secret documents
should be seen not as a heroic campaign but as a reckless act that has
jeopardised our safety and played into our enemies' hands.
The damage wrought by Snowden's revelations takes five forms. It weakens
America's relations with Europe and other allies; it harms security relationships
between those allies, particularly in Europe; it corrodes Western public
opinion's trust in their countries' security and intelligence services; it
undermines the West's standing in the eyes of the rest of the world; and
it has paralysed Western intelligence agencies.
All these are bad. And as it happens, they are also all Kremlin priorities:
if Vladimir Putin were writing a 'to-do' list for his officials, it would
have all these five points on it. Yet this aspect of the story has been largely
unexplored.3 One reason is that the public has a superficial and
glamourised view of espionage, fed by Hollywood thrillers and spy novels.
Outsiders simply don't understand what intelligence agencies actually do.
Nor do they understand the necessarily secretive and often cynical deal-making
at the heart of diplomacy. That ignorance may be healthy. But when it is
breached, people are shocked.
Responsible journalism has trouble dealing with secret and hence uncheckable
information released by sources with a political agenda. Most of Snowden's
leaked documents consist of slides, presumably used in internal presentations.
But what do they represent? Are the operations and capabilities described
merely planned, long since abandoned, or actually under way? How widespread
are they? Who are the targets? What do the preceding and following slides
say? Who is the audience for this presentation? What objections or questions
were posed? This context is crucial. Journalists usually scrutinise leaked
documents for exactly these links and clues. Yet in the case of the Snowden
revelations, there has been no such scrutiny.
A third element fuelling support for Snowden is genuine concern about the
way in which computer processing-power and digital storage affect the privacy
and anonymity that we have long taken for granted. The term 'mass surveillance'
may be misleading, but it resonates. Official responses to the Snowden
revelations have been lame. The White House blames the NSA for allowing the
documents to leak; its rebuttals to the claims made have been laconic and
dutiful, rather than vigorous. Allies fume, mostly silently.
The security and intelligence agencies in democratic countries are not used
to dealing with non-specialist media. They prize (rightly) secrecy over setting
the record straight. Explaining why a leaked secret document does not mean
what it purports to mean may result in giving away another secret, perhaps
still more valuable to an adversary. Moreover, the climate created by the
leaks, and memories of past deception, dissembling, exaggeration and inaccuracy
on issues such as Iraqi weapons programmes, makes it hard for the agencies
to put forward their case. Morale has plummeted in the face of a vehement
and corrosive scepticism about the veracity of anything coming from intelligence
This book is not based on complacency about the status quo. It is not a whitewash
of British and other allied intelligence agencies, either regarding their
reaction to the Snowden revelations or their activities in previous years.
I have spent much of my career in pursuit of official secrets (in dictatorships
and democracies) and have had some success in finding them. I have on several
occasions prompted official leak investigations, not bly in NATO when I was
the first journalist to disclose that the alliance had finally agreed to
make contingency plans to protect its new members.4 In my book
Deception I exposed the German BND's spying operations in Estonia,
and described the disastrous British intelligence operations in the Baltics
in the 1940s and 1950s. In all these cases I have judged the public interest
more important than saving politicians and officials from embarrassment.
My instinctive attitude is to mistrust official explanations. The plea of
secrecy that intelligence and security officials invoke when confronted with
hard questions makes it easy to cover up incompetence, corruption and treason.
Yet transparency and journalistic freedom do not trump all other considerations.
Secrets may be so sensitive that journalists have no business exposing them
(I have come across some of those too). Journalists may not realise the
sensitivity of the secrets they have obtained: officialdom needs some kind
of recourse (such as Britain's D-Notice system) to advise the media about
how to make disclosures less damaging. Journalists have a duty to their
readers—but they are citizens too. Their safe and comfortable lives,
and those of their fellows, depend on the proper functioning of the state.
They should not take this for granted.
A healthy competition between officials who want to keep secrets and journalists
who try to find them out is the hallmark of a democracy. My side winning
this contest can involve notional or real breaches of the law, which may
in turn expose journalists and their sources to the risk of prosecution.
That is part of the job: a journalist who wants to invoke a public-interest
defence in breaching secrecy has to be willing to plead his case before a
judge and jury if necessary. If convicted, he will hope that political pressure
will bring a pardon, or that history will vindicate him. We journalists do
not enjoy absolute statutory immunity, nor should we. Nobody elected us.
We make mistakes, and if they are bad ones—reflecting recklessness or
malice—we should expect to suffer consequences. In short, both sides
in this contest between truth and secrecy need to be guided by their sense
of broader responsibility. Not every breach of official secrets deserves
prosecution. And not every official secret deserves to be exposed.
Some of the accusations made against the Snowden camp are silly. It is not
disloyal for journalists to try to expose state malfeasance. Nor is wrong
for them to profit from their discoveries. Good journalists with good skills
and good sources get good information, and if they are good at analysing
and explaining it, they deserve (and may even get) good money.
Finally, worries about the future of privacy in an age of limitless electronic
storage, powerful algorithms and extraordinary processing power are
understandable. My forthcoming book Cyber-phobia5 deals
in detail with how our habits and attitudes need to evolve to match the rapid
change of technology we use in our daily lives. In brief, my argument is
for concern rather than panic. Society has evolved in the past in response
to new technologies and the benefits and threats they bring. It will do so
in the future too. We will find new ways of behaving, just as we have with
cameras, cars, telephones and personal computers. We will need to change
some laws and establish new institutions. It will be uncomfortable for everyone
but it is a surmountable problem.
That broad topic bears on this e-book too. The intelligence agencies, like
everyone else, are grappling with new capabilities, vulnerabilities and
constraints. The American constitution, with its admirable prohibition of
arbitrary searches and seizures, was not designed for the digital age, which
allows large amounts of information to be stored, and sorted rapidly and
repeatedly by many remote investigators. The Smith v Maryland Supreme Court
judgment of 1979, which says that expectations of privacy do not apply to
dialled telephone numbers, did not foresee the ability of the authorities
to warehouse such material in colossal amounts and search it automatically.
In sufficient quantities and in the right context, meta-data (for example
the time, duration and direction of a phone call) can be more revealing than
its content. The latter requires a search warrant. The former does not. Similarly
the American distinction between citizens (constitutionally protected) and
foreigners (fair game) is impractical and outdated when data crosses and
re-crosses national frontiers. The need to rely on (and to arm-twist) private
internet, technology and telephone companies creates new problems and dilemmas.
In particular, weakening commercial cryptography standards, or finding
vulnerabilities and keeping them secret, for example, may bring immediate
gains in terms of intelligence collection, but—if exposed—strategic
losses in terms of stoking distrust of America as a guardian of global security
Legal challenges on these issues in America are under way as I write this
e-book and will doubtless reach the Supreme Court eventually. Political
controversies are bubbling too. The presidential Review Group on Intelligence
and Communications Technologies mulled how America and other countries should
manage their security and intelligence agencies in the digital age (some
of its recommendations were sensible, others in my view unworkable or dangerous).
President Obama on January 17th announced some modest and largely cosmetic
changes to the NSA's remit, but has broadly endorsed its activities and
Ultimately, voters will have their say, in America and in other democracies
too. But it does not seem that voters wish to destroy current intelligence
capabilities, or to rewrite the statute book to make privacy inviolable always
and everywhere, and at whatever cost, as some Snowdenistas seemingly want.
Despite sensationalist, ill-informed and sometimes misleading commentary
in much of the media, public opinion in Britain and America seems broadly
to agree with the proposition that releasing state secrets damages national
security. In Britain, for example, 42% of those asked in a poll last year
thought the security services had broadly the right powers; a further 22%
thought they should have more.7
The NSA and associated organisations are huge. Distinguishing the communications
of terrorists and other adversaries from the innocent data of innocent Americans
is tricky. Things do go wrong. In the 'LOVEINT' scandal a small number of
NSA officials were found to have abused their position to snoop on people
of interest in their private lives. They were disciplined. I think they should
have been fired and prosecuted. Corrupt, self-interested intelligence officers
are as big a threat to our freedom, or even a bigger one, as corrupt,
self-interested police or judges. Their numbers may be tiny, but that is
no reason for complacency.
Leaving aside wilful individual wrongdoing, it is clear that the NSA has
also over-reached. 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. At other points the FISA court has also
complained about the scope of the NSA's collection of meta-data, about the
way in which it is accessed, and about the level of authorisation sought.
Yet on reading the (mind-numbingly long) rulings from the court, it is clear
that the system is broadly working. The NSA makes mistakes. It reports them.
The court finds flaws in the agency's conduct and slaps it down (in sometimes
stinging language).8 Procedures change. Politicians react.
Snowdenistas may not like the system, but even before their disclosures,
its checks and balances were operating broadly as intended.
If the result of the Snowden revelations is to show that intelligence agencies
and their employees make mistakes, or that they operate up to the limits
of their political, judicial and regulatory constraints, and sometimes clash
with the lawmakers and judges who regulate them, then that is an underwhelming
benefit given the damage caused. Yes, the system could be better. I strongly
support the introduction of a 'public defender' in the FISA court (as,
incidentally, does the NSA).9 Such a person would be security cleared to
see secret information, but would also have the standing to argue against
the intelligence agencies' requests for warrants. Under the current system,
the agencies make their case to the judges—but with nobody to challenge
them head on. (President Obama has suggested lay advocates take part in
deliberating 'novel' cases). The appointment of FISA judges—currently
by the chief justice alone—could be the result of a broader process.
The NSA regards foreign citizens' communications as fair game—which
happens to be the position under international law. Moreover as Nigel Inkster,
a former British spymaster now at a London think-tank, notes:
it is clear that much of the non-US data searched by the NSA was in fact
provided by the intelligence services of the countries concerned, with the
authorisation of their governments, as part of a programme of collaboration
For all that, people everywhere need better ways to rebut damaging conclusions
that may be drawn from automatic analysis of electronic information. It would
not be acceptable if, for example, an innocent non-American landed irrevocably
on an international no-fly list, or were deprived of a bank account, just
for being a pious Muslim who studies chemistry and likes aeroplanes.11
Though such worries are widespread, especially about how such capabilities
might be abused in future, examples of things actually going wrong right
now are remarkably scanty. Snowden has claimed:
I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant
to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal
That is a shocking claim. But it depends heavily on the world 'could'. He
'could' also have set fire to his desk. Neither form of behaviour is condoned
by the NSA. Both arson and warrantless wiretaps of random Americans are
punishable. With a million-plus stolen documents at their disposal, the worst
case involving deliberate intrusion into individual privacy—in America
or abroad—that the Snowden camp has been able to come up with so far
involves six radical Muslims (one of them with American connections) whose
penchant for online pornography and contact with under-age girls had come
to the attention of the NSA. The agency appears to have been mulling a leak
of this information, as a possible means of discrediting them and their role
as propagandists for violent and extremist forms of Islam.13
Another slide (actually highlighting the need to stay within the law, however
irksome or inconvenient it might be) implied that an unnamed 'restaurant
in Texas' might be the subject of surveillance if drug runners were meeting
there.14 The context was not a recommendation, but a warning to
NSA staff not to repeat the errors of Minaret, a warrantless wiretapping
programme in the 1960s and 1970s whose targets included Martin Luther King
and Senator Howard Baker.15
That story of the targeted Muslims (if true) raises some serious questions:
who would make the decision about initiating such official smears; how would
they be conducted; what level of threat or nuisance would be sufficient to
trigger this tactic; and what redress would someone have if the smear turned
out to be incorrect? Such hypothetical questions are more troubling than—so
The legal framework for counter-terrorism, government hacking, data and meta-data
collection, and rules on searches and seizures when international travel
is involved is a work in progress. That is not the same as a closed system
in which no challenge is possible. Checks and balances in a free, law-governed
society do not depend on perfection for their legitimacy. The actions of
the NSA and other agencies are directed by elected leaders and subject to
scrutiny by lawmakers and by judges. That oversight could be better. But
it is not negligible or useless (as it is in the authoritarian countries
about which the Snowden camp is so strangely silent). Outcomes vary. At the
time of writing, a judge in the District of Columbia had ruled that meta-data
collection was illegal, while another judge in New York, in a different case,
had given an opposite ruling.
As Inkster argues, even the term 'mass surveillance' is a misnomer. It implies
that governments systematically monitor the content of the communications
of their citizens—reading e-mails, listening to phone calls—and
take actions against them as a result. In fact, he says:
The NSA and its partner agencies have been running huge quantities of
communications meta-data through computer programmes designed to identify
extremely small target sets on the basis of very strict criteria … searching
the haystack for fragments of needles.16
An American blogger, Dan Conover, puts it like this:
The public media freak-out over NSA data collection misses the primary point
of those systems entirely: the NSA's e-mail meta-data campaign is designed
to efficiently collect and then discard information. Not because the NSA
is a civic-minded agency that wants to protect our theoretical privacy, but
because your personal e-mail isn't the target … The NSA sucks in massive
amounts of meta-data because it's searching for a subtle signal (some indication
of covert terrorist communication) in a vast sea of static (like me e-mailing
a fantasy football trade offer to my buddy). Got it? The system isn't designed
to care about you and your private data. It's designed to efficiently eliminate
anything it determines to be 'not bad guy'.17
Even Snowden himself justifies his leaks not by alleging that we live in
a world akin to Orwell's 1984,18 but by claiming that we
are heading that way. I dispute that. But what is hard to deny is that in
their attempts to forestall this hypothetical threat, he and his friends
have done huge, practical damage right now.
Chapter One: Real Intelligence
Every country with the capability to spy does so. Dictators like to control
their subjects and bully their neighbours. Democracies want to stay safe,
free and prosperous. In each case, decision-makers like to have the best
available information, which includes where possible knowing adversaries'
secrets. Good intelligence minimises surprises, widens choice and strengthens
negotiating positions. It can come from inference, from open-source material,
from electronic snooping, and from human sources: getting people to break
promises and betray secrets.
Intelligence is collected in the full knowledge that the other side is doing
just the same thing. Complaining that intelligence officers steal secrets
is like complaining that diplomats dissemble, or that journalists simplify
and exaggerate: it is what they are paid to do. Big countries do it more
than small countries, and America, the richest and most powerful country
in the world, does it most of all.
When it comes to collection of electronic information about their own citizens,
however, other countries adopt practices which leave America looking like
a bunch of milquetoasts. Russia's extensive and intrusive system of internet
monitoring is both widely known and attracts little controversy.19
France allows surveillance of internet users, in real time and without prior
legal authorisation, by public officials including police, intelligence and
anti-terrorist agencies as well as government ministries.20 A
law expanding these powers was passed in December 2013, just weeks after
France expressed outrage that the NSA had allegedly been engaged in similar
activities there. Spying is necessarily conducted in secret, partly for
operational reasons but also to save face (among victims and practitioners).
Espionage is not glamorous, despite its Hollywood depictions. It is just
another government bureaucracy—albeit one which involves behaviour that
is always disreputable (telling lies) and often illegal (using false identities,
bribing, bullying, breaking into buildings, tapping phones). Ruses, stunts,
mischief and gadgets may look rather ridiculous in the cold light of day,
so espionage is a tempting target for outside suspicion, investigation,
denigration and ridicule.
Any politician or senior official involved in international negotiations
knows that spying is routine. You have to be careful what you put in texts
or e-mails, and what you say on any kind of phone, unless you have some advanced
security measures in place. Even then, electronic communications are vulnerable
to a sophisticated attacker. That is why serious governments have special
venues for their important meetings. These typically have no windows (which
are vulnerable to the use of long-range microphones involving the clever
use of lasers). They are usually deep within secure government buildings.
Mobile phones and other gadgets must be left outside in lead-lined lockers.
This is annoying, but it is a fact of life.
Against this background, the fact that America spies on other countries,
and that American allies spy on other countries, that America spies on its
allies, and that those allies spy on each other, seems less shocking. Or
at least it should. One of the most sensational disclosures in the Snowden
material was that America's NSA spied on Germany, chiefly from a listening
post on the roof of the American embassy in the heart of Berlin: part of
a network run by the agency's Special Collection Service, which uses 80 foreign
locations to intercept electronic communications. Among the targets was the
chancellor, Angela Merkel, chiefly via an insecure old mobile phone which
she uses for party and private business. Disclosed by Der Spiegel in October
2013, this caused outrage.21 The American ambassador was summoned
to the foreign ministry to be rebuked. Mrs Merkel phoned Barack Obama to
complain. Germany cancelled an intelligence-sharing agreement with the United
States and Britain.22 The then justice minister Sabine
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger called for the suspension of the deal under which
American counter-terrorism officials have limited access to European banking
For many Germans, the idea that America was spying on their country epitomised
an arrogance and untrustworthiness which had rankled for years. During the
Cold War, when the then West Germany needed America to secure its survival
against an existential threat from the east, such grievances had to be swallowed.
Now they erupt freely.
Yet the idea that American intelligence is active in Germany and other European
countries is hardly surprising. Anyone with access to Google could find a
pithy commentary in the Wall Street Journal written in March 2000
by James Woolsey, the former head of the CIA, called 'Why we spy on our allies'.
It was prompted by a previous row about the Echelon programme, under which
America and its close allies search international telecommunications traffic
for keywords. A report to the European Parliament had alleged that America
was collecting economic intelligence that was specifically used to stop European
countries winning international contracts. Woolsey made his case with admirable
Yes, my continental European friends, we have spied on you. And it's true
that we use computers to sort through data by using keywords. Have you stopped
to ask yourselves what we're looking for?23
European companies habitually win contracts by bribery, he maintained. In
most cases their products are too backward or costly to win any other way.
By disclosing the payment of bribes by Europeans, the American government
levels the playing field. He added that America spies on European sales of
dual-use technology to rogue states and on other sanctions-busting. And he
pointed out that France is a mighty practitioner of industrial
Woolsey's points were true in 2000. Nothing has changed since then. On the
contrary: America is now far more aware that it faces a grave terrorist threat.
And European countries have behaved in ways that make the worries of the
1990s seem mild. Germany in particular has cultivated Russia, adopted a
unilateral policy of appeasement towards China, and has repeatedly undermined
international sanctions on Iran.
At least some of the outrage prompted by revelations of America's spying
may stem from envy. European spy agencies (Britain is a partial exception)
are unable to match the NSA's capabilities and are therefore left playing
the role of junior partners, offering collection services in exchange for
shared intelligence. But the hypocrisy is still striking. I have already
mentioned France, but Germany also has well-resourced and effective intelligence
and security services which do exactly what such agencies are expected to
do, including spying on other countries.25
Germany's electronic intelligence agency is the low-profile Kommando Strategische
Aufklärung (Strategic Intelligence Office). A report in Der Spiegel
in 2008 admiringly described how this organisation, which is notionally a
pure military intelligence agency, can 'bug the world'.26 Its
targets included calls made on the civilian phone system in Russia, and the
communications of drug barons in Kosovo. Some of this intelligence activity
is clearly commendable. Some of it may be questionable. But it undermines
the recent German outrage.
So too does a further point: that Germany is one of the world's top intelligence
targets—from all directions. Chancellor Merkel's penchant for using
an old-fashioned phone for her private use (she has a cumbersome but highly
secure phone for government business) is no secret: it has been a subject
of much jocular mention in past years. It is hardly surprising that other
countries try to glean what clues they can from her text messages and phone
calls. These countries, incidentally, include France, China and Russia—as
well as America.
Given that German policymakers, as a rule, read English, have access to the
internet, know that their country is often at cross-purposes with America,
themselves receive intelligence information based on electronic intercepts,
and are not stupid, what exactly is bothering them?27 The answer
is the publicity. Asked privately about espionage, few if any would contest
the picture outlined above. But when the details of spying operations are
revealed, it is often politically impossible in the targeted country for
even seasoned and cynical politicians to remain silent. Faced with an irate
media, and demands from opposition parties for action and explanation, they
have to feign outrage.
Revelations of even the most justifiable spying create the impression of
a scandal exposed. A good exhibit here is the Snowden camp's attack on Sweden's
FRA electronic intelligence agency for its collaboration with Britain's GCHQ
and America's NSA.28 Glenn Greenwald, the American lawyer in Brazil
who is the custodian of at least some of the cache of stolen material, and
the most articulate public defender of its release, implies that it is wrong
for Sweden to have security, defence or intelligence links with Britain and
For anyone familiar with European security, it is hard to see the scandal.
Sweden is not a NATO member, but it has excellent if discreet relations with
the alliance for entirely understandable reasons. During the Cold War, Sweden
experienced frequent intrusions by Soviet submarines. Now it is experiencing
dummy air attacks. One of these, on Good Friday 2013, involved Russian warplanes
targeting two vital defence installations.30 Unpublished but well-sourced
information suggests that the Russians also jammed Sweden's air defence radar.
A leaked military intelligence report says the drill included launch codes
being received to fire nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Most Swedes do not
like this, and neither does the government (or the slimmed-down armed forces,
which say that in the event of a crisis they would be able to defend only
part of Sweden from military attack, and for less than a week).
So Swedish policymakers want to know what Russia is up to. What is the aim
of the sabre-rattling? What subversion, mischief and influence peddling are
under way in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, just the other side of the Baltic
sea? Why is Russia putting nuclear missiles in its Kaliningrad enclave? What
state is the Russian Baltic Fleet in? What plans does it have for the two
Mistral helicopter carriers it has ordered from France? These are classic
national security questions to which espionage provides at least a partial
Sweden, like other small countries, cannot mount the kind of intelligence
efforts it needs alone. So it exchanges information with countries that can
help. America has satellites, for example, which have extraordinary abilities
to look down on Russia from the sky. Sweden does not have spy
satellites.31 But it can benefit from America's—and it is
in America's interest that Sweden, a vital defence partner in the region,
is secure and well informed. In turn, Sweden has intelligence assets that
America may lack. These can involve collection of electronic information
based on proximity to Russia, or linguistic and cryptographic capabilities.
Sweden also has human intelligence assets (spies) in and around Russia which
may complement or even exceed those available to American intelligence
(especially in its current plight).
Why is this wrong? Not because it breaches Swedish 'neutrality': though Sweden
was indeed neutral during the Second World War it does not now count itself
as a neutral country (it is not part of any military alliance, which is a
different status). Whether neutral, non-aligned or independent, the country
must be defended: that is the responsibility of Sweden's government. Intelligence
and security cooperation with other states is an entirely normal and legitimate
part of that. It also helps the security of others. A recent tip-off from
Sweden's FRA alerted Finland to a sophisticated Russian cyber attack on its
It would be fair to criticise Sweden if it was heavily engaged in wasteful,
unnecessary intelligence cooperation with America, against a distant or
irrelevant target. But that is not the case either. Russia's behaviour in
recent years provides ample proof of the problem. Nor can Swedish-American
ties be criticised on the principled ground that spying (by human or electronic
means) on foreign countries is illegal: it isn't. Nor does the Swedish public
seem bothered by any of this.33
Greenwald's case against Sweden (at least as far as can be discerned and
inferred from his interview on Swedish television: he has declined to respond
to my requests for comment) rests on America's wrongdoing. The United States,
he repeatedly notes, fought a disastrous and illegal war in Iraq, and now
systematically breaches laws and norms in its bulk data collection. So any
country engaged in intelligence cooperation with America is tainted too.
He also assumes, but does not prove, that the privacy of Swedish citizens
is breached as a result of these ties. He dismisses the utility of such
cooperation out of hand, even when aimed at terrorists, on the grounds that
they already know the West's capabilities and take steps to avoid and evade
Greenwald makes much of the fact that the espionage links include economic
targets. This, he argues, is hypocritical. America complains about Chinese
spying on big US companies. So why is America—with Swedish help—spying
on Russian energy companies? The answers would fill a book. (Readers may
find mine, The New Cold War, useful.) But the brief and simple point is that
Russia's energy companies are essentially political entities. Their senior
managers are Kremlin appointees and cronies. They spin money off into to
'black cash' for the use of the Russian authorities in off-the-books projects
at home and abroad. They are part of Russian foreign policy. If you worry
about Russia, you worry about Gazprom.
The Snowdenistas' attack on Sweden was not an aberration. Looking at the
pattern of disclosures, a shift is visible from those that involve 'evidence'
of mass surveillance, which is a matter of genuine public controversy (although
the operations described so far are all legal and in my view justified) and
of the controversial hacking techniques used by the NSA (which may be legal,
but are more arguably unwise), towards material that affects only the national
security of the countries concerned.
Brazil, for example, reacted with an appearance of fury to revelations that
America and Canada were spying on it.34 It is now organising a
conference on curbing foreign espionage.35 Revelations of Australia's
spying on Indonesia infuriated the leadership in Jakarta and seriously damaged
Australia's relations with its Asian neighbours. Indonesia recalled its
ambassador and cancelled an intelligence sharing agreement. Yet it is obvious
that Australia would be interested in the political, economic and security
thinking of a neighbouring country of 250m people, which presents a potential
military threat and has been the source of terrorist attacks which have killed
A few days after the Swedish disclosures, another leak revealed Norwegian
cooperation with the NSA. It showed that the Norwegian intelligence services
have good sources within Russia, that they benefit from American help in
dealing with Russian spies in Norway, and that areas of mutual interest include
the Kola peninsular (a border area strewn with nuclear facilities) and the
Russian energy industry.36
It is hard to see how such disclosures can be justified by an appeal to the
public interest. Russian bombers make regular intrusions or near-intrusions
into Norwegian airspace. In December 2007 Russia sailed a naval flotilla
into the middle of Norwegian oil and gas fields in the North Sea and conducted
an unannounced exercise there, disrupting their operations and endangering
lives by forcing a suspension of the helicopter flights which supply the
To regard Russia as an illegitimate or unfair target reveals a strange view
of international politics. Someone with a wider vision of the world might
recall the cyber attack on Estonia in 2007, the war in Georgia in 2008, or
the death of a British citizen (Alexander Litvinenko) murdered with a nuclear
weapon in the centre of London in 2006. Also noteworthy is the story of the
whistleblowing accountant Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered a $230m fraud
perpetrated against the Russian taxpayer by senior officials, and died in
prison in 2009 after abuse and a beating. So too are the steps Russia has
taken to prevent its ex-Soviet neighbours such as Ukraine and Armenia signing
free-trade and cooperation deals with the European Union. A fair-minded outsider
might also note the soaring Russian defence budget, its development of advanced
weapons, and its arms sales to countries such as Syria.
To be sure, all these cases are open to multiple interpretations: Russia
is not necessarily wrong to defend itself and pursue its national interests.
But if you believe that democracies have the right to spy on anyone at all,
Russia must be high up the target list. Similarly, anyone concerned with
bringing abuses to light should regard Russia (and China and Iran) as major
targets. Established international human rights organisations and civil liberties
outfits certainly do. They berate Western countries for their many failings,
and rightly so. But the bulk of the work of outfits such as Amnesty
International, Article 19, Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders
is on abuses in non-Western countries.
The priorities of the Snowden camp are rather different. Nothing so far in
their revelations has cast non-Western, authoritarian regimes in a bad light.
Was Snowden really unable to find anything in the NSA's files that reveals
abuses in such countries—perhaps collected by the agency but ignored
by politicians for cynical reasons of Realpolitik? It would be easy
to imagine some intercepts on how the Communist slave-masters of Beijing
regard with glee the repeated kow-tows of Western governments on the issue
of Tibet. The NSA doubtless has some insights into what the Kremlin thinks
of the British government's trade-focused and amnesiac policy towards Russia.
A true whistleblower might be expected to seek out such material. It would
highlight Western cynicism and cowardice on human rights issues, and make
the Snowden camp's case far more effectively than spurious scandals about
This inconsistency, I believe, is the result not just of a blinkered world
outlook but of something more troubling.
Chapter Two: Selective Outrage
The intelligence agencies' capabilities are astonishing. They have the ability
to plant malware on their targets' computers: either remotely, or by intercepting
them before they are delivered to the customer. They can approach targets
when they are playing computer games, monitor their web browsing habits,
turn on webcams and microphones remotely and invisibly, use a mobile phone
to bug a room, or a computer, and far more besides. They can read text messages
and listen to phone calls. They have extraordinary access to the fibre-optic
cables which carry data between countries and continents. The NSA and allies
scamper through the plumbing of the internet like mice through the nooks
and crannies of an old house. Huge slices of electronic traffic can be warehoused
for days or even weeks. Powerful computers and ingenious algorithms can search
for patterns and connections in a way that only recently would have seemed
The outline of these efforts was already known before the Snowden leaks,
even if the code-names and techniques were not. The best-known programme,
PRISM, stems from the Bush-administration Protect America Act. It collects
data from companies under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Act (FISA) Amendments Act 2008. The physical and digital monitoring of
individuals is supervised both by congressional committees and by the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court (also known as the FISA court).38
The NSA must seek a warrant from this court if it believes that there is
a greater than 50% chance of an American 'person'—ie citizen or
resident—having their privacy breached.
The greater the secrecy of these programmes and capabilities, the better
chance they have of tackling terrorists, criminals, enemy spies or other
targets. From a taxpayer's and citizen's point of view, they represent good
value for money (or at least they did until exposed and rendered useless
by Snowden and his friends). The agencies can deal with complex plots hatched
by well-organised outfits, and, in terrorism, with lone-wolf threats from
obscure individuals who may have only the most tangential connections to
known plotters. If the American administration decides that it urgently needs
more information about adversaries with connections in Panama, or Papua New
Guinea, or Paraguay, or Peru, or Poland, the NSA should not start from scratch.
It should have capabilities which it can use immediately.
Unless you believe that the United States, Britain and other countries are
inherently evil, it is hard to argue that their intelligence agencies should
not develop the maximum capabilities available to them—especially as
adversary countries are doing exactly the same. Whether they use those
capabilities is a matter for political decision-makers and subject to judicial
and legislative oversight.
Revelations about the size and scope of collection programmes may seem shocking.
But they should not really be surprising. Elected governments of all political
stripes in all big Western countries have given these agencies many billions
of dollars or euros or pounds of their taxpayers' money. The rough size of
their budgets is as well known as their huge buildings. Anyone with more
than a passing interest in intelligence or security knows that the capabilities
are vast too. If they were not, it would be a scandalous waste of public
The vulnerability of the NSA's actions was not that they were illegal, but
that they were secret. Experts and specialists had a rough idea of what was
going on. The general public (and even some lawmakers and officials) did
not. As David Cole, a law professor, wrote in a recent New York Review
of Books article,
… the meta-data programme was blessed by all three branches. The Bush
administration instituted it and Obama maintained it. Fifteen federal judges
on the FISA court declared it lawful. And Congress reauthorised the Patriot
Act provision upon which the programme was based.39
Imagine the following questions being posed in early June 2013: 'Does the
NSA have the ability to read an e-mail if it really wants to? Does it have
means to get round commercially available encryption? Does it cooperate with
other intelligence agencies? Does it have the means to tap into international
fibre-optic cables? Does it store electronic information in order to search
it later if necessary? Were these capabilities envisaged at the time the
relevant laws were drafted?' To all these questions the honest answer would
have been 'yes'.40
What Snowden has done is give a level of detail confirming these suppositions,
coupled with, from his allies, a level of spin that verges on the hysterical,
and doses of accidental or deliberate misinterpretation (as in the case of
allegations that millions of telephone calls in Norway had been intercepted
by the NSA).41
A more sensible question concerns not the capabilities but how they are
exercised. Is it really worth spying on Angela Merkel's phone? Is the risk
of the collection proportionate to the gain? These are hard questions for
spy chiefs and their political masters. (The administration has now indicated
that it will stop snooping on friendly foreign leaders' communications.)
But to portray the NSA and its partner services, as Greenwald does, as akin
to East Germany's Stasi, or to the KGB, and claiming that they have the 'literal'
goal to 'eliminate privacy globally'42 is an extraordinary claim,
which requires extraordinary evidence. So far, nothing of the kind has been
As Snowden's 'Christmas message' broadcast on Britain's Channel Four television
A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They'll
never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves: an unrecorded,
unanalysed thought. And that's a problem because privacy matters, privacy
is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.43
But this is a huge exaggeration. What the Snowden documents do appear to
show is that the NSA and allied agencies have, unsurprisingly, colossal abilities
when it comes to collecting and storing meta-data. They are also able to
crack or sidestep a lot of commercially available cryptography. Moreover,
if they have you in their sights, they have in principle the ability (though
not necessarily the time, or the authority) to find out anything about you
that you store or communicate online. Those are impressive capabilities.
But they do not mean that they can target everyone (nor, their defenders
would argue, do they want to). Being able to see who has communicated with
whom is not useful in itself. It is a good way of finding suspects to target.
Such targeting may in turn need political approval or a court order. And
it is does not mean that everyone is targeted. As the American blogger Bob
Activists like Snowden want you to believe that NSA is directly, and without
court approval, spying on you personally, because hyperbole like this feeds
an agenda that involves scaring anyone susceptible to anti-government paranoia.
But this quote from Snowden goes beyond anything we've read about so far,
saying point blank that the government is watching everything we do.
However, if this is true, Glenn Greenwald or another Snowden flack needs
to reveal any and all evidence that NSA has installed cameras and listening
devices in our homes and is actively observing and recording our daily activities
without warrants. Again, 'watching everything we do' is a major revelation,
but if evidence doesn't exist, Snowden needs to issue a
The Snowdenistas' exaggeration stems from a conflation of self-criticism
with self-hatred. In their eyes, democracy, the rule of law and constitutional
government have been so eroded that the West carries no moral weight at all.
The authorities are capable of anything, so it is sensible to assume that
they do what they are capable of. Why would they stop? Greenwald dismisses
judicial and congressional oversight of the NSA as a stooges' pantomime.
The Obama review commission was designed to 'prettify' the 'surveillance
state' but not to reform it.45 If you think that America, Britain
and their allies are hypocritical, sleazy oppressors, then it becomes much
easier to justify overstating your case and maximising the damage you do.
Recklessness is one explanation. Sabotage would be another. The pattern of
disclosures so far does not support the idea that the Snowden camp is chiefly
worried about the moral standing of America or the civil liberties of Americans,
either now or as they might be threatened by a putative authoritarian government.
Even leaving aside the leaks that seem deliberately designed to damage American
diplomacy, others include disclosures of capabilities and programmes that
clearly affect national security. One such leak was of secret parts of the
intelligence budget, showing how much is spent where. The same leak in the
Washington Post included secret self-assessments in 50 aspects of
counter-terrorism. It noted: 'blank spots include questions about the security
of Pakistan's nuclear components when they are being transported, the
capabilities of China's next-generation fighter aircraft, and how Russia's
government leaders are likely to respond to "potentially destabilizing events
in Moscow, such as large protests and terrorist attacks".' As Paul Rosenzweig
dryly pointed out on the excellent Lawfare blog, 'The Pakistani, Chinese,
and Russian intelligence agencies surely appreciate the status
Another category of leak revealed American offensive cyber-warfare
capabilities.47 To be sure, digital weapons are controversial. But other
countries have them too. Campaigning for unilateral digital disarmament is
a respectable if idealistic approach. But there is no sign that the American
people support it. And the issue is a long way from the purported abuse of
privacy that Snowden wanted to expose. So too is the revelation that America
launched 231 cyber attacks against 'top-priority targets'.
Some of the leaks include exactly the sort of thing that intelligence agencies
are paid to do. Why is it scandalous or improper that Britain's GCHQ spied
on foreign diplomats at a summit in London?48 If the NSA is able
to intercept the communications of a top Russian politician, surely it deserves
praise (in private), not censure and exposure (in public). Providing the
full list of Snowden's damaging disclosures would be tedious. But even the
highlights are shocking. They include: how the NSA intercepts e-mails, phone
calls, and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan, and that
it is keeping a closer eye on the security of that country's nuclear weapons;
an operation to gauge the loyalties of CIA recruits in Pakistan; e-mail
intercepts regarding Iran; and global tracking of cell-phone calls to (as
the Washington Post naively put it) 'look for unknown associates of
known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect'.
To the South China Morning Post Snowden revealed details of how the
NSA hacks into computers and mobile phones in China and Hong
The obvious result of this is to damage America and its allies. Most of the
criticism of the Snowdenistas has so far focused on this point. But much
less attention has gone to a deeper question: in whose interest would this
damage be? One candidate leaps to mind. A long-term intelligence adversary
with a stellar record of penetrating and disrupting American agencies, it
has a record of highly effective 'active measures' (in the parlance of its
intelligence service) to sow dissension between America and its European
allies. This country regards the Atlantic alliance as out-dated and ripe
for demolition. It knows that NATO's credibility is waning, that the Pentagon
is cash-strapped and that many European countries have lost interest in defence.
It knows that in theory, the West is more than a match for it—economically,
diplomatically and militarily. But in practice, division in the West levels
the playing field.
That country is Russia. The uncannily good fit between the damage done by
Snowden, and the Kremlin's geopolitical and intelligence interests, is in
my view more than a coincidence. As Russia grapples with its own problems,
the need to rely on covert measures grows (these problems include: failure
to modernise, its undiversified economy's dependence on oil and gas revenues,
crumbling infrastructure and a shrinking demographic base). Russia's symbolic
counterweights to the European Union and NATO, respectively the Eurasian
Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, aim to restore
Kremlin influence in the former Soviet empire. That plan is succeeding. The
main obstacle to its success would be determined Western resistance, which
Snowden's leaks make less likely.
Russia also wants to block attempts to reboot the Atlantic alliance on the
basis of economic security, through the planned Transatlantic Trade and
Investment Partnership (TTIP). Stoking anti-American fury in countries such
as Germany harms that deal's prospects. The Kremlin also is determined, along
with China, to wrest control of the internet from the American-based committees
which run it now. It wants the internet to be under governmental control,
with an entrenched right for national authorities to promote 'information
security'—a concept which sounds anodyne or even reassuring to Western
ears, but in practice would allow authoritarian governments to censor and
control their subjects' diet of information. In both Russia and China misuse
of social media, for example, is perceived as a significant national security
issue requiring extensive active and passive efforts by the authorities.50
Assumptions about who should control the internet are shifting as it
moves away from its Anglosphere roots.51 The perception fostered
by the Snowden revelations, that America is abusing internet freedom and
undermining commercial cryptographic security, allows authoritarian countries
to lay criticisms against the West which would have seemed laughable only
a few months earlier.52
These are big and important tussles. They will determine the shape of the
world in coming decades. The overwhelming interest of the public in democratic,
law-governed countries is that we come out on top. If we want to stay rich,
safe and free, we need to win multiple battles with those who want us to
be poor, vulnerable and constrained. Snowden has weakened our chances, and
helped our enemies.
A further level of damage is to America's commercial interests. Big US technology
companies and service providers have to varying degrees collaborated with
the NSA, either voluntarily or in response to judicial warrants. Sometimes
these warrants were so secret that the companies were unable to tell their
customers or shareholders even in outline what they had been forced to do.
Any attempt to contest the rulings had to be in secret too. They were unable
to respond truthfully to requests for comment from the media or elsewhere.
So long as nothing leaked, this was perhaps a defensible tactic from the
NSA's point of view. If you have developed a secret and effective means of
collecting electronic information, it is important that the target does not
find out. Terrorists, criminals and enemy spies read English and use the
internet. They will pick up clues about hardware and software which may have
been compromised, and use alternatives.
Yet in retrospect, this approach taken by the NSA looks reckless. It depended
on these arrangements staying completely secret. In June 2013, the
Washington Post said that Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, YouTube,
Skype, AOL and Yahoo cooperated with the NSA's PRISM programme. The companies
said that they provided data only when legally obliged to do so.53
It is worth noting that the initial coverage of PRISM was accompanied by
some serious inaccuracies and misrepresentations.54 It does not
give the NSA the claimed 'direct access' to these companies' servers. It
is a way of transferring data collected under a court order. The Washington
Post also backed away from its initial claim that the companies concerned
Nonetheless, the business models and brands of these companies are dented.
They are furious with the administration, both for what they were made to
do, and because it has been made public. Microsoft, for example, has issued
a statement decrying the interception of customer data on its networks as
an 'advanced persistent threat'—the term normally used for Chinese and
other cyber attacks.55 Microsoft says it will expand the use of
encryption, challenge gag orders in court and make its software more transparent
(to allay fears that it may contain accidental or deliberate flaws which
But the distorted lens through which the Snowden cheerleaders view the world
magnifies failings close to home, and obscures those abroad. The shortcomings
of the West become its defining characteristics. Greenwald, with his extensive
experience as a trial lawyer specialising in corporate wrongdoing, provides
a caustic if glib account of America's misdeeds. He cites the Bush
administration's foreign policy, the rendition (kidnapping) and torture of
terrorist suspects, past incidents of warrantless wiretapping, and much more
besides. These are real problems and should indeed provoke soul-searching
among those who wish the West to occupy the moral high ground, and for
democracies to maintain their political and economic pre-eminence. But they
are no excuse for nihilism.
As the journalist Brendan O'Neill points out:56
Conspiracy theorising and the cult of the whistle-blower have the same origins:
a crisis of democracy, the collapse of public engagement, and a dearth of
faith in politicians and even in politics itself. The more that some people
feel alienated from politics, cut off from the old to-and-fro of political
debate, the more they can feel tempted to embrace hare-brained stories about
tiny cliques of rich folk or lizards or Jews running everything behind our
backs. Conspiracy theories feed off the carcass of democratic engagement.
And so it is with whistle-blowing, too: the more that radicals lose faith
in both the political system, which they view as totally corrupt, and the
little people, who are 'wilfully ignorant', the more they come to believe
that only brave, truth-wielding individuals can save the world from enslavement
by a dastardly elite.
The Snowdenistas' extremism and hyperbole reflect a mind-set which the blogger
Catherine A Fitzpatrick has outlined well in her essay 'When Thinking Styles
Collide'.57 She was actually writing about the geek world's attitude
to anti-piracy legislation, but the points she makes also highlight the weakness
of other self-described crusaders for digital freedom, who scorn the law-making
process, and judicial and parliamentary oversight, as out-of-date or irrelevant
in the digital age. Geeks, she says, do not 'get' governance.
They don't understand how a bill becomes a law and don't believe in the
They don't understand how cases get prosecuted and how evidence has to be
presented and [how] the different parts of the judicial system operate …
checks and balances;
They don't get how judicial review works to determine constitutionality.
The problem, she argues, is that tech-savvy people tend to look at laws as
if they are computer code. In the software world, even a tiny flaw negates
a hugely strong premise. Once a bad law is on the books, they believe, it
will operate like bad software: mechanically, like a guillotine. So: 'unless
every single edge-case, hypothetical, problem is identified, spelled out,
and remedied, nothing can stand.'
That is not the way that a modern law-governed society works. Imperfections
and hard cases abound. The art of politics and administration is balancing
constraints and anomalies in a way that produces the least unfair or dangerous
outcomes, now and in the future. That world is messy and sometimes murky.
To the self-righteous and impatient it may seem impossible to change. But
for all its faults, it is capable of correction. America recovered from the
McCarthy era. The Church committee reined in an out-of-control FBI after
the abuses discovered in the 1970s. The same is true in other Western countries.
Zealots such as Snowden prefer their own judgment to the outcomes that this
flawed, slow, muddled system provides. It is their right to believe this
and to act on it—within the law. But their form of protest takes the
form of stealing and publishing state secrets, in a way that causes irreversible
damage (impact, as they would put it). This is not an approach that would
be tolerated in other forms of protest. Anti-nuclear activists may blockade
power stations or weapons facilities. Even they would regard it as irresponsible
to try to sabotage them, aiming to cause maximum damage, in the expectation
that the resulting debate will outweigh the harm done.
Arbitrary power is the great grievance of the Snowden camp. Who gave
the NSA and GCHQ the power to bug and snoop? The real answer to that is simple:
the elected governments and leaders of those countries, the judges and lawmakers
who have the constitutional authority to supervise intelligence services,
and the directors of the agencies in the exercise of their lawful powers.
You may not like the system. You may think it needs improving (I do). But
never in the history of intelligence has supervision been stronger. America
in particular stands out as a country that has taken the most elusive and
lawless part of government and crammed it into a system of legislative and
judicial oversight. Greenwald simply dismisses such arrangements. For those
in search of reform, he argues, 'the answer definitely does not lie in the
typical processes of democratic accountability that we are all taught to
respect'.58 Instead, he thinks the answer lies in international
pressure on America. Shame and destruction, not votes, laws and institutions,
bring about reform.
The question about arbitrary power actually deserves to be posed in the other
direction. What constitutional authority do the Guardian, Der
Spiegel or the New York Times have? What gives them the right
to leak their countries' most closely guarded secrets, obtained at vast expense,
and with the sacrifice of tens of thousands of man-hours? Even the most
passionate defenders of press freedom would hesitate to say that editors
are the supreme guardians of the national interest. And even the most
self-important editor would hesitate to claim omniscience. What expertise
do editors and journalists have in handling these stolen secrets? How can
they judge that a particular programme is worthy of exposure (rendering it
useless overnight and perhaps endangering those who have worked on it) and
that another can be spared the glare of publicity, at least for now and possibly
The publication of secret documents, without context or challenge, has a
pernicious effect on the debate that follows. As Inkster, the former British
spymaster now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London,
Not even the NSA knows for certain how much information Snowden actually
stole. It is clear, however, that he could not possibly have read more than
a fraction of this material. It is equally clear that he did not understand
the significance of much of the material he did read and that the same was
true for the newspapers that published it. The resulting confusion and
misapprehensions that have taken hold within the media and shaped the public
debate about the NSA's bulk collection activities have not been effectively
challenged or rebutted by the US and UK governments for various reasons,
chief among which has been a desire not to create a damaging precedent by
responding to specific allegations regarding the activities of their intelligence
As far as can be inferred from Greenwald's public statements (he declined
to respond to my requests for comment), his main aim is to make a splash.
Asked how he chooses which material to release, and which to withhold, he
We chose certain information we wouldn't disclose, eg what would help other
states improve their surveillance, or anything that NSA has gathered about
people (that would do the NSA's dirty work) or anything that would endanger
the lives of innocent human beings. We want to publish in a way that will
create the most powerful debate and greatest level of
That is a striking claim. Who is Greenwald to decide who is 'innocent' and
who is not? Are all employees of the NSA to be counted as 'guilty' of engaging
in 'dirty work'? And everyone who cooperates with them? Or only some? And
guilty of what? Is Greenwald the judge, jury and executioner of the careers
of public servants who have operated within the law, at the behest of elected
governments, and under the oversight of courts and lawmakers?
It is only a mild caricature to say that the presumption behind the leaks
is that the intelligence agencies in the West are the greatest threat to
freedom on the planet. As Inkster argues, 'for those who regard intelligence
services as inherently illegitimate or take the view that the US is the world's
number-one rogue actor, no counter-narrative will ever be convincing'. Such
fears may be the basis for a thrilling screenplay in a Hollywood movie, where
vast sinister forces are marshalled against a lone hero. But they are a poor
guide to real life.
One of the overwhelming impressions left by the leaked documents is, in fact,
of a painstaking approach to legality. The spies did not believe that what
they wrote would ever become public. Like other bureaucrats, they trumpeted
their achievements in the hope of scoring points and winning favour. That
comes across sometimes as chirpy or crass. But nothing revealed shows contempt
for judicial oversight or a wilful desire to evade it.61
The NSA and other agencies do try to work out what the maximum is that they
can do within the limits of the law. In some cases, they overstep the mark
and get slapped down, sometimes crossly, by the FISC or Congress; moreover,
individual officers of the agencies may knowingly break the rules. But the
fact that these breaches were recorded in internal agency documents (and
in the case of individual wrongdoing, disciplined) bespeaks adherence to
procedure, not a cover-up.
Moreover, to err is human: bureaucratic self-aggrandisement is common in
other branches of government too. Police officers sometimes intimidate suspects,
fake evidence or beat up protestors. Soldiers haze new recruits or commit
war crimes. Teachers and social workers abuse their power. (Even journalists
can be crooked, deceitful or brutal.) Intelligence officers make mistakes
too. It is true that the powers that the agencies enjoy mean that they must
be particularly vigilant against abuse. But 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. It is true that the FISA court turned
down few requests from the NSA. But this does not prove that the court is
toothless. It reflects the fact that the NSA itself vets its own requests
to weed out those that are unlikely to gain approval.
The recklessness, damage, narcissism, and self-righteousness of the Snowden
camp do not invalidate all their aims. A debate on the collection and warehousing
of meta-data was overdue. Collected and scrutinised, meta-data can breach
privacy: if you know who called a suicide prevention helpline, or an HIV
testing service, or a phone-sex line, and from where and when, the content
of the calls matter less than the circumstances. These collections of meta-data,
it should be noted, are not only vulnerable to abuse by nosy spooks: they
are available in colossal amounts to private sector internet companies, some
of whom may protect them only lightly and use them with far greater freedom
than a bureaucrat.
More importantly in my view, the Obama administration has treated whistleblowers
with scandalous harshness, especially those from inside the intelligence
community. The hardest point for critics of Snowden is to explain what he
should have done with his worries had he chosen to stay within the system.
Genuine whistleblowers such as Thomas Drake, a senior NSA analyst, who believed
(rightly or wrongly) that they were exposing abuses within the agency, were
hounded and prosecuted under laws which would be rightly applied to spies
and traitors. They are now strong supporters of Snowden's chosen course of
The Snowden revelations have also exposed the fact that senior officials,
particularly America's Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper,
have not been fully frank with Congress. He was asked in an open Senate
Intelligence Committee hearing in March: 'Does the NSA collect any type of
data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?' A correct
response would have been to give a boilerplate answer: data and meta-data
are collected within the law and further information would be available in
a closed session. Instead he answered 'No Sir'; when that response was queried,
he continued: 'Not wittingly … there are cases where they could
inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.'62 In a strict
sense that was true: phone records are not exactly 'data', and storing them
for future scrutiny is not exactly 'collecting'. The members of the committee
were aware of the programmes concerned, having been briefed on them in classified
sessions. The question was, in a sense, a trap, aimed at bouncing Clapper
into revealing more than he wanted. But for all that, as a member of the
executive branch, he is under a solemn duty not to mislead the
legislature—or to mislead citizens who are observing its questioning
of their government officials. For whatever mixture of motives or confusion,
he breached that duty. He apologised later, pleading confusion not deliberate
deceit. Though charges that he 'perjured' himself or deliberately lied to
Congress are an exaggeration, in his place I think I would have resigned.
Lawyerly definitions of terms such as 'data', 'collect' and 'abuse' have
allowed the NSA to stretch its remit in a way that some may now regard in
retrospect as excessive. But it has done so within the system, not outside
it. NSA officials (like their counterparts in GCHQ and allied agencies) are
not cowboys, brutes or madmen. They signed up to defend their country's freedoms,
not to undermine them. They tend to be sober, law-abiding types with a
punctilious regard for procedures. The dire state of their morale now is
a result of Snowden's disclosures. The consequences remain to be seen. The
dangers of abuse in a woe-struck agency may be greater than in one where
morale and corporate culture are healthy.
One can argue (and I would agree) that the NSA needs reform, that it has
become too big, too dependent on private contractors, too sloppy in its security
procedures, too hard to oversee and too slippery in its definitions of what
it may and may not do. All these shortcomings are cause for concern (though
not for panic) and are worthy subjects for discussion. As General Clapper
himself has admitted: 'As loath as I am to give any credit for what's happened,
which is egregious, I think it's clear that some of the conversations that
this has generated, some of the debate, actually probably needed to
It is hard to dispute that the public should be aware that the NSA has stretched
the definition of material 'relevant' to terrorism to include warehousing
the phone records of every call made or e-mail sent in America, and that
the agency has had serious rows with the FISA court. Thanks to Snowden, the
public now knows this. The modest reforms announced by President Obama on
January 17th are also a direct result of the Snowden leaks. But such benefits
need to be weighed against the costs. Nothing evinced so far justifies the
catastrophic damage that the Snowden leaks have done to national
security—the worst disaster in the history of American and British
Chapter Three: Damage Control
The mere whiff of a breach acts like nerve poison on intelligence agencies.
If you lose even a single document, or believe an unauthorised person has
had access to it, assumptions must be of worst-case scenarios. Assume that
the Russians learn that an outwardly boring Irish insurance broker in the
Ukrainian capital Kiev, for example, is actually an undercover officer of
Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. What will they be able to do with
that information? Will he be in danger? Will they able to find what agents
he is running? If so, they must be brought out: they risk arrest. Maybe the
agents are safe, but the operation cannot continue: in that case everyone
involved must be stood down inconspicuously. What about colleagues? Safe
houses? Dead-letter boxes? Another question is when the breach occurred.
Can one be sure that this was the first instance? How solid is the 'product'
(the intelligence obtained from the compromised network or individual)? Should
it be assessed or analysed differently? Is it possible that the adversary
used the breach to feed misleading information and then monitor the results?
The answers to these questions may be 'no'. But an experienced team of
counter-intelligence officers must ask them, find the answers, check and
double-check. The taint of even a minor breach must be analysed, contained
If a single breach is a serious problem, two make a nightmare—particularly
if the missing material comes from different bits of the organisation. Documents
which may on their own be quite anodyne can be gravely damaging if they are
combined. Revealing an intelligence officer's cover name may be no big deal.
But combined with his previous travel, it could be the clue that gives the
adversary details of an operation. Multiple breaches increase the problem
exponentially. Each bit of compromised information must be assessed not only
on its own, but in relation to every other piece of data. As the numbers
mount, the maths becomes formidable. Four bits of information have 24 possible
combinations. Seven have 5,040. Ten have more than three million. If Snowden
has taken a million documents, the permutations that—in theory—need
to be examined exceed the number of atoms in the universe.
Snowdenistas dispute claims of colossal damage. Foreign intelligence services
in Russia or elsewhere do not and will not have access to the stolen material,
they maintain. But dealing with secrets is a highly technical and complicated
business. People build their careers on it. It requires elaborate procedures
to store the information, to set and administer levels of access, to monitor
who sees it, when, why and how, and particularly to authorise, log and track
any copies made. It requires specially built premises, and staff who must
be carefully recruited and trained and subjected to regular screening. The
whole setup—with its physical, bureaucratic and human
elements—involves regular checks, and possibly professional penetration
tests, in which expert outsiders are tasked with trying to break the security
systems. It is also designed to minimise the effects of any breach—for
example by seeding the data with tell-tales (to highlight if it is being
misused) or booby-traps (to act as a deterrent to malefactors). All of this
takes place in the knowledge that the world's most sophisticated intelligence
agencies regard other countries' secret data as a top priority.
Snowden's allies may be admirable journalists. But they do not have the
experience or resources to protect the information he has stolen. Their offices
cannot be made safe against electronic eavesdropping. They do not know how
to make their computers truly secure. The idea that the material is safe
because it is encrypted is shockingly naïve: it is child's play for
a sophisticated adversary to place malware on a computer, remotely and invisibly,
which logs every key stroke, and records everything that appears on the screen.
Such 'end-point vulnerabilities' render even the heaviest encryption pointless.
They can be delivered via a mobile phone or through an internet connection
(or by some other subtle and secret means). Snowden knows this. It is possible
that someone with his technical skills could keep the stolen data secure
on his own computers, at least for a time and if he does not switch them
on. But that becomes ever less likely over time.
Security becomes outright impossible when the material is handled by a team
of amateurs. How many people have access? Who has screened them? What are
their vulnerabilities—financial and psychological? Does anyone check
their bank accounts? Are any of them vulnerable to blackmail? Do they have
any training in avoiding 'social-engineering' attacks (such as impersonation)?
What about the use of force? What happens if someone becomes disillusioned
and leaves the team? A shocking example of carelessness came when Greenwald's
partner, David Miranda, was stopped while changing planes at London's Heathrow
Airport in August. His luggage included a number of 'thumb' USB drives and
electronic devices, carrying some of the Snowden trove (as well as, some
reports say, a password, apparently written on a bit of paper). Any public
official who carried secret data this way would be fired and then prosecuted.
A similarly sackable offence would be sending secret material across
international borders by a commercial courier company such as FedEx. The
editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, admits that he did just this,
and jokes about it on his Twitter profile.64 (Mr Rusbridger's
defenders say that the material was heavily encrypted and that both the sender
and receiver were third parties; he may feel that this ruse is fail-safe
but security professionals would not.)
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Snowden conducted his activities
within the NSA in order to be as damaging as possible. Among the so far
unpublished material are (by the NSA's account) 31,000 files which show what
government customers asked the agency to find out about countries such as
China, Iran and Russia, and its assessments of how it could respond. These
'shopping lists' are among the most closely guarded secrets in any intelligence
agency. Once you know what the other side needs to find out, you can infer
what they already know.65
All this counts as primary damage: to the sources, methods and self-confidence
of an intelligence or security agency. But the ripples extend farther. A
spy agency's greatest asset is its reputation. Britain's MI6, for example,
enjoys free publicity from decades of films featuring James Bond. The real-life
business of intelligence has little to do with the stunts on screen. But
the brand helps attract able people to work as intelligence officers. A
reputation for integrity and skill also makes it easier to recruit sources.
If you are pondering whether to trust your life to a foreign country's spies,
you will want to have confidence in their ability to keep secrets. It is
hard to conceive of a definition of America's national interest that does
not include keeping secret the identity of foreigners who trust the country
with their views, secrets—and lives.66 But the Snowden fan
club, like the cheerleaders for WikiLeaks, takes no account of this. The
NSA and other agencies cannot assume that, as Snowden so blithely puts it,
there is a "zero chance" that adversaries have seen the stolen documents.
They have to work on the assumption that they have done, or eventually will
For all these reasons, the Snowden disclosures have had a catastrophic long-term
effect on British and American intelligence. As I have explained above, even
the threat of a breach is enough to endanger an intelligence operation. But
publishing secrets in the media introduces a whole extra level of risk. It
is bad enough if the Chinese and Russian intelligence services have knowledge
of (or access to) the programmes compromised by Snowden. But when they are
actively publicised, even the dimmest and worst informed terrorist, anarchist
or criminal gets the message. Capabilities that work when deployed stealthily
become useless once everyone knows about them. Once you learn that a computer
screen can be read from far away through an open window, you draw the curtains.
Once you know that a computer can plant malware on a mobile phone, or vice
versa, you start keeping mobile devices in a lead-lined box. To be sure,
the agencies will develop new capabilities. But if your navy has been sunk,
it is little comfort to be told that you can always build another one. What
are you going to do in the meantime?
The pleas of the Snowden-friendly media that they screen the material before
publishing it cut little ice. It is nice of them to take advice, in some
cases, from government security sources about disclosures that might be
particularly damaging, and even to refrain from making them. Many of the
more responsible media outlets have partially redacted the documents they
have published, at least protecting the names of intelligence officers. But
that does not stop Greenwald from offering the same material elsewhere. His
petulant remarks after his partner Miranda was stopped at Heathrow Airport
did not suggest a responsible attitude to the secrets he guards. 'I will
be far more aggressive in my reporting from now. I am going to publish many
more documents. I am going to publish things on England too. I have many
documents on England's spy system. I think they will be sorry for what they
did.'67 Publishing secret documents is a grave responsibility.
Surely the justification should be to expose wrongdoing, not to satisfy personal
The damage was foreshadowed by WikiLeaks—a forerunner of the Snowden
disclosures. A German politician, Helmut Metzner, had to resign and faced
prosecution when he was outed as the anonymous source mentioned in a leaked
American diplomatic cable (he denied wrongdoing and charges of espionage
were eventually dropped). America's State Department has spent a great deal
of time and money trying to safeguard other individuals whose identities
have been wholly or partially exposed in the leaked cables. To be fair, in
the versions that WikiLeaks published initially, the names of interlocutors
were redacted. But a mixture of carelessness and ignorance meant that the
passphrase for the unedited versions of the cables became available. The
result is unlikely to have increased foreigners' willingness to meet and
speak frankly with American diplomats about even mundane matters.
When intelligence sources, as opposed to mere diplomatic ones, are put at
risk the damage is far greater. The stolen documents include the names of
many NSA and GCHQ officers. Some of them will have been posted abroad—and
may well have had sensitive contacts with locals. If their names and identities
become known, then anyone who has met them, say in China, Iran or Russia,
is in danger. Snowden says he will not release such material. So why did
he steal it in the first place? In any case, as I have argued above, he cannot
be sure that it will not leak out, given the amateurish way in which it is
safeguarded. That is a profound worry to existing sources, and a grave deterrent
to new ones. 68
The disclosures of espionage by American allies damage them too. Diplomatic
capital is consumed in issuing new assurances and tokens of friendship, as
Australia has had to do with Indonesia. Other agreements may be put on hold.
Trust is the most valuable commodity in espionage. Stolen secrets are fragile
and perishable commodities. The instinctive desire of every intelligence
officer and every spy service is to hoard, not to share. That preserves sources
and methods, and makes the next secret easier to obtain. Handing hard-won
material to a foreign partner is possible only when you believe that the
country concerned is at least as trustworthy as you are yourself. The NSA's
failure to keep its secrets has dented America's reputation as a trustworthy
The quite unnecessary damage caused by Snowden makes it hard to believe that
his aim was solely to expose wrongdoing. It looks far more likely that he
was trying to cripple the NSA and its allies, and to hurt America's standing
in the world. Taking a huge cache of documents, and in a way that largely
defies description, analysis or mitigation, is not the action of a patriotic
whistleblower. It is the behaviour of a saboteur. It is a sign of the desperation
now reigning in the NSA that some are willing to offer him an amnesty even
now, if he will only hand back the missing files. Nobody can be confident
that they have not been seen by others. But at least the agency will have
a clearer idea of what was taken, and how.
All this damage, of course, suits Russia. The NSA and other American and
allied intelligence and security agencies have been a prime target for the
Kremlin since even before the Cold War. The successes have been great: recent
triumphs include recruiting the heads of Soviet counter-intelligence at the
FBI (Robert Hanssen) and the CIA (Aldrich Ames). Signals intelligence in
the 'Five-eyes' alliance of America, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
has been a particular target. Western countries have shifted their attention
since the end of the Cold War. The reverse is not the case. The ten Russian
'illegals' arrested in America in June 2010 prompted a lengthy, disabling
and so far fruitless search within the NSA for the sources which at least
one of them was believed to have recruited there. Was Snowden's decision
to do what seems like deliberate damage to the NSA and America mere recklessness
and vindictiveness? Or was there another motive, conscious or unconscious,
in the background? No definitive answer to that is available on the evidence
presently available. But some historical examples are instructive.
Chapter Four: History Lessons
In the 1970s, the nuclear disarmament movement in the West was moribund.
People worried more about the energy crisis, militant trade unions, terrorism
and other issues. That began to change in 1977, when the Soviet leadership
launched a vigorous and successful public campaign in continental Europe
against the 'neutron bomb'—an American anti-tank weapon aimed at shoring
up the alliance's fragile conventional defences in Europe. The anti-nuclear
cause was fuelled further by the NATO decision in 1979 to place Cruise and
Pershing missiles in Europe in response to the Soviet deployment of the similar
SS20 missiles from 1977 onwards.
As the anti-nuclear movement mushroomed, the Atlantic alliance came under
huge strain. Ronald Reagan was seen in Europe as a warmonger and a cowboy.
Pro-American governments burned political capital fighting against seductive
if simplistic arguments. Surely it was better to have fewer nuclear weapons,
not more? Why not try unilateral confidence-building moves to defuse tension,
rather than escalate the risk of war by boosting arsenals further? 'Ban the
bomb', and the romantic eccentricity of the 'Women's Peace Camp' at Greenham
Common near London, had an appeal that the dry arguments for the status quo
could not match. Few went as far as the Spartacist League, with their hallmark
chant of 'Smash NATO! Defend the Soviet Union!' But the consensus in the
peace movement was that America was a bigger threat than the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union's own role in the anti-nuclear movement is still unclear.
Defectors such as Stanislav Lunev (from Russia's GRU military intelligence
service) and Sergei Tretyakov (of the SVR foreign intelligence service) have
made sweeping claims. Academic studies have been more cautious. After Communism
collapsed, a senior member of Britain's CND, Vic Allen, unrepentantly admitted
to passing information to the East German Stasi.69 The Soviet Union financed
British and other communist parties, which played a role in the 'peace' movements
disproportionate to their tiny numbers.70
What is not in doubt is that CND and the like served Moscow's purpose. To
be sure, the campaigners said they opposed Soviet and Western nuclear weapons
alike. But the focus of their efforts was asymmetric: they could apply political
pressure to Western governments, political parties and institutions, whereas
their influence in the Soviet bloc was minimal. The Soviet Union enjoyed
conventional military superiority in Europe; demanding a 'nuclear-free Europe'
in effect meant accepting Soviet hegemony on the continent. 'Peace' was therefore
a big Soviet talking point in all international forums and discussions, both
from diplomats and from nominally independent but state-funded outfits such
as the World Peace Council.
Regardless of their direct or indirect involvement, the information-warfare
experts of the Soviet KGB were delighted with the divisive and distracting
effects the 'peace' movement was having in the West. Soviet decision-makers
relied on the anti-nuclear campaigners in the West to weaken and constrain
the resolve of governments there.
Their successors in the Kremlin now see a similar opportunity. Like the
anti-nuclear movement of the early 1980s, modern campaigners for privacy
and digital freedom see their own countries' flaws with blinding clarity,
and ignore those of the repressive regimes elsewhere. They manifest a corrosive
mistrust for their political leaders and public officials, to the point that
little said by governments carries any weight at all.
It is worth noting that the Snowdenistas go far beyond the anti-nuclear
campaigners in their thirst for damage. Disagreeing with your government's
actions is one thing. Sabotaging them is another. Imagine, for example, that
a British or American anti-nuclear activist got hold of the acoustic signatures
of his country's nuclear submarines. These signatures—the noise that
the vessels make under water—are among the most closely guarded of all
defence secrets. They are distinctive and almost impossible to change. Once
you know them, it becomes much easier to track a submarine and if necessary
destroy it. Submarines' effectiveness largely depends on their invisibility.
So publishing the acoustic signatures of the nuclear submarines would be
a simple and devastating way of making them useless—in effect, sabotage.
Such a move would cost the country concerned billions of dollars. It would
also tip the strategic balance in favour of countries whose nuclear deterrent
remained secret and effective. Even an anti-nuclear newspaper like the Guardian
would decry such a move. Yet in effect, that is what Snowden and his allies
have done. They have rendered ineffective some of their countries' most expensive
and sensitive defence capabilities, while leaving adversaries untouched.
Another lesson from the past concerns the scandal around the Echelon system
for collecting information regarding international telecommunications. It
was revealed in a series of leaks in the 1990s, eventually prompting a lengthy
report by the European Parliament.71 John Schindler, a former
NSA analyst who is now a professor at the Naval War College in Rhode Island,
sees a parallel. The exposure of Echelon, he believes, was an 'active measure'
by Russian intelligence, aimed at stoking distrust between America and its
European allies. Without access to classified information, that link is
unprovable. But the similarities are startling. Details of the programme
were divulged by a disillusioned NSA contractor, Margaret Newsham (who was
working for the defence company Lockheed). The story was highlighted by
campaigning journalists in the UK and in New Zealand. At first sight the
message seemed sensational. America and Britain, together with other close
allies, were spying on the rest of the world. They had a global network of
facilities which could intercept communications—in those days faxes
and telexes, as well as phone calls and the nascent internet. All this seemed
to be happening without public consent or political oversight.
The result was fury—especially as one of the journalists involved, Duncan
Campbell, claimed that the spying was not just for reasons of statecraft,
but also in pursuit of commercial goals. American companies were gaining
an unfair advantage over their rivals thanks to the muscle of their intelligence
On closer scrutiny, the case largely fell apart. It was exciting to know
the code words for the programmes concerned, and to have the supposedly
top-secret locations listed, illustrated with maps, photographs and diagrams.
The silent fury of the intelligence agencies added another note of drama,
as did the self-righteous hysterics of European politicians.
Yet just as with the Snowden revelations, the disclosures were not in themselves
surprising. Britain's GCHQ and America's NSA exist to collect electronic
intelligence. It is hardly surprising that they strive to fulfil their missions.
Nor should their close alliance be a surprise. Britain and America have been
cooperating closely since the start of the Cold War (as anyone viewing a
James Bond film knows).
The details—the means, nature and extent—of those activities and
alliances are indeed secret, but for entirely understandable reasons.
Intelligence agencies, as explained above, like to keep the other side guessing.
Even seemingly unimportant information about budgets, spending plans, logistics
and premises can be useful to the adversary, at a potentially high cost.
A secret, once released, may be a shock to the unwitting. But a shock is
not necessarily a scandal.
Nor could anyone prove that anything revealed in the Echelon disclosures
was actually illegal. International law does not prohibit espionage. The
national laws of Britain, America and other countries gave (and give) the
intelligence and security agencies a remit, and set up a system of oversight.
The remit may be too wide, and the oversight too flimsy (or perhaps vice
versa: views differ), but these are matters for the political process to
Perhaps the gravest charge was that America conflated commercial espionage
with statecraft. That would be shocking if true. It would be illegal under
American law. It would confer unfair advantages on the lucky US companies
that received intelligence titbits from the government, and disadvantage
their competitors. It would discredit America's reputation for fair dealing
in the eyes of the rest of the world.
It is impossible to prove a negative. Those who believe that the American
government and its corporate handmaidens (or Corporate America and its political
handmaidens) are capable of any kind of iniquity will not be disabused of
their convictions by mere denials, or the absence of facts to support them.
But the campaigners against Echelon produced a remarkably thin case to support
their contention. It is hardly surprising that American spies may target
foreign companies. As Jim Woolsey, the former CIA director, explained in
his newspaper article, they may be involved in bribery to gain an unfair
advantage, or be breaking sanctions. They may have employees with access
to state secrets, either now or potentially. Intelligence agencies are ingenious,
curious and adaptive: that is what they are paid to be.
But the gap between spying on foreign companies and handing their commercial
secrets to domestic ones is huge. And there is no evidence for it. The most
likely explanation for this absence of evidence is that nothing of the kind
is going on. Any programme of systematic intelligence sharing with the corporate
sector would be simply too risky to contemplate (as well as being wrong).
How would it be administered? Who would authorise the security clearances?
How much information could be disclosed? And what about the competitors,
who in litigious America would be likely to sue the government if they believed
they were losing out on access to valuable information collected at taxpayers'
American companies do get plenty of help from their government. They can
receive briefings from officials about political and economic conditions
abroad (as do executives from any country with an effective foreign service).
Favours may be given through indirect channels such as consulting firms,
or by hiring recently retired officials from the intelligence community.
Abuses do happen. But it is striking that none of the soi-disant whistleblowers
from the NSA or elsewhere, and no conscience-stricken corporate executive
anywhere, has given the slightest sign, hint or proof of any programme of
state-sponsored commercial espionage, either in the Echelon era or now. By
contrast, evidence abounds of such espionage by other countries, chiefly
China but also, notably, France.
In assessing the effects of Snowden's actions, it may help to imagine how
the whole thing could have been done differently. The overwhelming evidence
even from the cherry-picked documents released so far is that the NSA is
a bureaucratic and rule-bound organisation. So the first thing that an employee
or contractor should do when he encounters a breach in the rules is report
it. The NSA, like GCHQ, has a system for this. In America, the Intelligence
Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 allows intelligence insiders
to disclose classified information concerning a 'serious or flagrant problem,
abuse, [or] violation of law' to members of congressional intelligence
committees. They are obliged to exhaust other channels first, including the
NSA's inspector general and the attorney general.
Snowden did not do that, largely because no such serious problem, abuse or
violation was taking place. As shown above, the NSA was acting within at
least the letter of the law, under congressional and judicial oversight,
in accordance with the instructions of an elected president. What Snowden
claims as motivation was the trajectory—that a future government would
abuse the collection programmes to create an Orwellian 'surveillance state'
which individuals would be afraid to challenge for fear of drawing attention
That is a political objection. So Snowden, even without disclosing classified
information, could have approached the lawmakers, especially in the Senate,
who have been publicly critical of what they see as the NSA's excessive reach.
He did not. He could have resigned from his job and applied for a job at
one of the many think-tanks and campaigns which worry about privacy in the
digital age. By providing stolen secrets he has certainly stimulated a far
more intense public debate than mere assertions of an ex-employee would have
done. But the quantity and quality of information stolen and published goes
far beyond anything necessary to start a debate. It looks more like material
for a global anti-American campaign.
Even without going through the legal channels available, Snowden could have
made it easy for people to defend him as a genuine whistleblower. He could
simply have taken and leaked the FISA court order showing that Verizon, the
American mobile phone company, has to routinely hand over its customers'
phone records.72 To be sure, this collection of meta-data is legal
and the order was a routine renewal of a programme which has been going for
years. But it was still shocking. People know that their phone companies
can do this (and may be glad about it: it helps locate stolen mobile phones).
They may be happy that police can analyse the data on a case-by-case
basis—for example to find out who has been present at a crime scene.
But there are reasonable grounds for worrying about a single government agency
creating an automatic, perpetual, searchable warehouse for all such information.
A handful of other documents released by Snowden come into a similar category
where a public interest defence would be plausible. If the NSA has indeed
been deliberately promoting faulty encryption software, or tweaking industry
standards, in order to make it easier to bug and snoop, that is a deplorable
and flawed policy. A patriotic American might well try to spare the blushes
of American companies who were put in an impossible position by a combination
of warrants and gagging orders, while finding some material that illustrated
the policy under which such measures were taken.
Had Snowden published such documents, he might well have been prosecuted.
American criminal justice officials do take a literal and stern view of the
law and (as I have pointed out above) this administration is particularly
and deplorably heavy-handed when it comes to dealing with whistleblowers.
But he would have had the strongest case for a public interest defence, or
a pardon if convicted. He would have been able to say truthfully that he
had sought to do the least possible damage to intelligence sources and methods,
and to the economic interests of the United States, and had focused his
disclosure on the secret aspect of the NSA's activities which most Americans
would find controversial. He could then have argued that any harm he did
by breaching his oath of secrecy was outweighed by the public good. He might
have faced prosecution and jail—but if he could prove that he had taken
nothing else but a limited set of documents, whose publication was embarrassing
but necessary and relevant, his defence, both in law and before public opinion,
would have been stronger. But he didn't.
In fact, his behaviour does not meet the most elementary tests for justifying
whistleblowing. Rahul Sagar, a professor at Princeton, has defined these
well in his new book Secrets and Leaks:73
First, a whistleblower must have clear and convincing evidence of abuse.
Second, releasing the information must not pose a disproportionate threat
to public safety. Third, the information leaked must be as limited in scope
and scale as possible. Snowden failed all three of these criteria. He 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?
I have shown that the Snowden disclosures are heavily spun and damaging to
American and allied interests in a way that goes far beyond the purported
goals of promoting a debate about digital security. I have shown that this
damage benefits Russia. I have shown that Snowden's behaviour cannot be justified
as whistleblowing. For these reasons alone, he and his allies deserve
condemnation. But it is possible—though not proven—that something
more sinister than mere naïveté and carelessness is afoot.
Chapter Five: Our Man in Hawaii
To see the suspicious features of the story, examine the facts, as far as
they are known, about Snowden's journey into and out of the world of
intelligence. After incomplete formal education, he enlisted in the US Army
but left after a few months—having broken his legs in an accident, he
says. After joining the NSA as a security guard, he moved to Geneva to work
for the CIA there, under the cover of an attaché at the American mission
to the UN. This is a remarkably successful trajectory. Nobody has yet explained
whether he displayed previously hidden talents, had served somewhere else
to good effect, or benefited from powerful sponsors.
Some clues about his activities exist from posts he made on the Ars Technica
website and in related chatrooms, under the pseudonym
TheTrueHOOHA.74 His views seem muddled rather than treasonous.
He wrote of surveillance: 'we love that technology … helps us spy on
our citizens better.' He was furious with administration sources who leaked
classified information to reporters: they 'should be shot in the balls',
he wrote. But in February 2010 his views had changed. He wrote: 'Did we get
to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control
to stop, or was it an relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in
undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?'
All this is odd (and not only because of his triple mixed metaphor). The
CIA does not encourage its officers to spend time in online forums mulling
the issues of the day or chatting about their private lives. The reason is
simple: it is a beacon to the other side. Intelligence officers work on their
targets with what is known in the trade as MICE—Money, Ideology, Coercion
and Ego. Any sign of an erratic personal life, of ideological dissatisfaction,
or of what psychologists call 'cognitive dissonance' offers an opening. If
the target is unhappy, wanting to behave one way but forced to do something
different, his mental stress can be exploited.
Russian intelligence keeps a close eye on the staff of adversary countries'
foreign missions. They are particularly interested in junior employees, trying
to spot which are just officials and which are intelligence officers. So
it is highly likely that the Russian intelligence rezidentura in Geneva
would have noticed the arrival of the young Snowden and would have spotted
his real job, working for the CIA. They also as a routine measure would have
tried to see what he did in his free time. They would have tried to monitor
his use of the internet on his unclassified home computer in the hope of
seeing a weakness—drugs, online sex, gambling—which might be a
potential avenue of approach. It is likely they would have identified him
as TheTrueHOOHA and observed his patchy work record, his erratic private
behaviour, and his voluble and increasingly dissatisfied stance online. According
to John Schindler, the former NSA analyst and specialist in counter-intelligence,
Snowden would have presented the perfect target to the Russians: 'intelligent,
highly naïve and totally uninformed'.75
The next question is how they could have approached him. Clearly an overt
approach would be risky and probably futile. Snowden showed no sympathy for
Russia. It is therefore likely that they would have used what in spy parlance
is called a 'false flag' operation. Russian intelligence, like the Soviet
KGB before it, has a particular expertise in this. During the Cold War, they
would identify disgruntled Western officials with strongly anti-communist
views. These people would have access to secrets and grievances—perhaps
because they were overlooked for promotion, or perhaps because they felt
their governments were not vigorous enough in resisting the Soviet empire.
The KGB officer would then make a delicate approach, showing no sign of any
East European connection, but pretending instead to be from South Africa's
intelligence service, the Bureau of State Security. The hapless Westerner
would think he was talking to a like-minded friend. Gradually he would be
coaxed into handing over small secrets, and eventually big ones. Once he
was past the point of no return, the case officer might identify himself
as KGB. Or he might maintain the ruse. Often it was only when (or if) the
breach was discovered that the Western official would realise that far from
helping a friend, he had betrayed his favourite cause to the worst enemy
imaginable. A similar kind of false flag operation in volved approaching
Jewish or pro-Israeli officials in the guise of a Mossad officer. The target
would be reproached for his country's half-hearted support for the Jewish
state and believe that he was helping its security by handing over vital
The beauty of false flag operations is that they can be precisely tailored
to fit a target's initial vulnerability, and can then deepen and extend it.
They can go through multiple stages: one intelligence officer identifies
the first set of weaknesses, drawing up a detailed personality profile and
a thorough picture of the target's private life and interests. Then another
begins to exploit them. A third deepens the cooperation and a fourth turns
the screws hard. Only when it is far too late, if at all, does the victim
realise what is going on.
If the Russians indeed spotted Snowden as a potential target for recruitment,
the best false flag approach would have been in the guise of campaigners
for privacy and government openness. They would have been patient; carefully
massaging his ego and making him feel that he was a lone crusader for justice,
whose vindication would lie outside the system, not inside it. There is no
proof of this. But it would certainly help explain what happened later.
Snowden left the CIA in 2009 and moved to Dell, the computer hardware company,
working as a contractor at an NSA base in Japan. Two oddities stand out.
One is that he abruptly ceased posting material on Ars Technica, and contributing
to its chatrooms. His last substantive contribution read as follows:
It really concerns me how little this sort of corporate behaviour bothers
those outside of technology circles. Society really seems to have developed
an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types.
I wonder, how well would envelopes that became transparent under magical
federal candlelight have sold in 1750? 1800? 1850? 1900? 1950? Did we get
to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control
to stop, or was it an relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in
undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?76
His views were getting more radical, not less. So why did he desist from
sharing them? One explanation would be that he was worried about attracting
the attention of his bosses or colleagues; another is that someone warned
him that this could be a danger. Such a break in a pattern of activity can
be a revealing clue in the counter-intelligence world. During the Cold War,
Britain's spy-catchers achieved some notable success following a tip-off
about readership of the Daily Worker. This was the Communist Party
newspaper (later renamed the Morning Star). People sympathetic to
Communism in the 1930s tended to be readers of the Daily Worker. But
if approached by Soviet intelligence officers, they would be told to stop
subscribing: it would be more useful to abandon overt Communist sympathies
and instead get jobs within the British establishment.
Many years later, this led to some useful breakthroughs. Diligent study of
newsagents' old records revealed people who had subscribed to the Communist
paper for some time and then stopped. Some of them indeed turned out to have
been active Soviet spies.
Along with Snowden's puzzling silence is another oddity: why did he give
up the CIA so quickly? Although he had long wanted to live in Japan, a glamorous
job involving intelligence operations in Geneva might seem more fun than
checking computers on a military base. One explanation for this could be
that Snowden was worried about the CIA's security screening. This involves
repeated polygraph (lie-detector) tests and can be quite intrusive. It might
reveal that he was hanging out with WikiLeaks sympathisers, for
example—which would mean a speedy end to his career. Repeat screening
for contractors to American intelligence (who make up an astonishing third
of the 1.4m people with top-secret security clearances) is bureaucratic and
onerous, but not so revealing. Another further explanation could be that
he realised that being a small cog in the CIA's station in Geneva did not
give him access to the secrets that would prove his contention of widespread
and sinister government misbehaviour.
The next oddity is that he left his job in Japan in September 2010 and visited
India for a week, ostensibly to attend a four-day course on ethical
hacking.77 India is far friendlier territory for Russian spies
wanting to talk to a source than somewhere like Japan or Switzerland. There
is no proof that this happened. But the trip does not quite make sense. Anyone
with a security clearance would normally have to seek permission to attend
such a course; it would be unlikely to be granted. It may be that procedures
for dealing with contractors at the base in Japan were sloppy: in 2011 a
background check on Snowden was improperly carried out.78 At any
rate, he did not declare this trip to his employers before or afterwards.
If he was indeed learning hacking skills, it would be interesting to know
why: the course was not needed for his job. If he went to India to meet someone,
that would be interesting too. Either way, the trip looks fishy.
Snowden moved to Hawaii, and in March 2013 took a job at an NSA contractor,
Booz Allen Hamilton. His new employer was worried by his resumé. It
seemed to have been padded with educational accomplishments which would have
been better described as aspirations.79 He was a systems
administrator, one of the unsung people who keep machines and software working
properly. The job has its drawbacks—but its boringness makes mischief
possible. Supervising people who are doing boring jobs is itself boring,
and is often done badly. But before gaining this job, Snowden was already
stealing secrets (at least as early as April 2012, American officials believe80).
He says he sought the Booz Allen job because it 'granted me access to lists
of machines all over the world the NSA hacked'.81 He seems to
have persuaded between 20 and 25 of his NSA colleagues to give him their
passwords and log-ins. If true—he has denied it—this is striking.
It is the behaviour of a spy, not a whistleblower. Why would someone who
wanted the best for his country, and reform of his agency, entrap colleagues
into a career-ruining blunder? (The people concerned have now, it seems,
For Russian intelligence, sparking an association between the disgruntled
Snowden and eager recipients of state secrets such as Glenn Greenwald the
blogger, Jacob Appelbaum the hacker, Laura Poitras the film-maker, and others
in that world of hacktivists and transparency campaigners would be a logical
next step. All were associated to varying degrees with WikiLeaks, which,
as I have shown above, was of great use to Russia (indeed its fugitive founder,
Julian Assange, now has a show on the RT state propaganda television
station).82 The hacker milieu is full of Westerners who are highly
suspicious of their own governments for tampering with what they regard as
the inviolable autonomy of the internet from any legal constraints. The KGB
certainly found it a fertile hunting ground in the 1980s, using German hackers
to steal NATO secrets in the days when online security was still
Such links and opportunities do not prove that any of the above-mentioned
people are conscious agents of the Russian state, and I am not accusing them
of that. (Snowden himself says the idea is 'absurd'.) But they do not need
to be. The example of the peace movement shows that given the right initial
direction and a favourable propaganda environment, political movements in
the West can serve the Kremlin's purpose without hands-on control. It would
not be hard for Russian intelligence to conceal an intelligence officer or
agent of influence somewhere in the background, or for that person to broker
an introduction between Snowden and his future allies.
The skimpy and confusing public accounts given so far leave plenty of room
for such suspicion. One question is when Snowden first started to steal secrets.
He joined Booz Allen Hamilton in March, but well before that he had offered
secret files to Poitras and Greenwald. Where did he get them and when? A
related puzzle is when Snowden first made contact with his future allies.
As the blogger Catherine A Fitzpatrick has noted, there are no fewer than
five dates given for his first contact with Greenwald.84 It does
not seem completely plausible that Snowden's first contact came only when
he started sending e-mails to Poitras in January 2013. Ostensibly, she then
persuaded Greenwald to install encryption software and take the mysterious
anonymous would-be source seriously (Greenwald had ignored previous e-mails
from Snowden, thinking he was a crank).85 But Appelbaum was in
Hawaii in March 2013 for a hacker conference, the SBoC (Spring Break of Code).
A bunch of other dedicated activists attended too, including Christine Corbett,
the pseudonymous hacker Moxie Marlinspike, and others. An American academic
and blogger, Craig Pirrong, conjectures that what really happened was this:
Snowden was in contact with Appelbaum first, and well before January 2013,
and Appelbaum directed Snowden to Poitras. It would be natural for a computer
geek and hacker like Snowden to know of, and to reach out to, Appelbaum.
Far more natural than to reach out to Poitras first. Under this conjecture,
the timing works out. Snowden, Appelbaum, and Moxie work out their basic
plan in late 2012 or early January 2013. Appelbaum activates the plan to
disseminate the information via Poitras by putting Snowden in touch with
her and near simultaneously Moxie initiates the SBoC to give him cover to
travel to Hawaii (and perhaps too a team of unwitting accomplices that could
help him cover his activities while there). They all converge in Hawaii a
couple of months later.86
The timing of Snowden's activities in Hawaii gives some support to that theory.
Lindsey Mills, his girlfriend of five years (but now abandoned), has deleted
her blog. But it is available on the internet archive via the Wayback
Machine.87 With some acute observation, Fitzpatrick notes that
Mills refers to her boyfriend disappearing off on a two-week trip on April
1st (Appelbaum's birthday is on or near April 3rd) and that she grumbles
mildly about having to be a taxi-driver to a lot of people—Appelbaum's
birthday guests, perhaps.88 (Ms Mills did not reply to an e-mail
Another puzzle is about Snowden's arrival in Hong Kong. According to the
account given, he told Poitras and Greenwald to wait outside a particular
restaurant at a particular time, until they saw a man carrying a Rubik's
cube. They were to ask him when the restaurant would open and he would reply
that the food was bad. That sounds sensible. Snowden would know what Greenwald
and Poitras looked like but they would need to know they were dealing with
the right source, not a plant or decoy. The Rubik's cube may have been signalled
in a mysterious and possibly coded tweet by Christine Corbett, a hacker friend
of Appelbaum's, about a 'Rubik's Cube party'.89
The next puzzle concerns Snowden's travels after he disappeared from work,
telling his employers that he needed treatment for epilepsy. If he were truly
keen to portray himself as a whistleblower, why did he fly to Hong Kong?
For anyone involved in American cyber-security, China is the biggest
threat—bigger even than Russia. Though autonomous in economic terms,
Hong Kong is firmly under the thumb of the Chinese authorities when it comes
to security. Assuming he was not in a hurry, he could have flown anywhere
he liked. Heading into Chinese jurisdiction—and promptly leaking details
of NSA operations against China to the South China Morning Post—looks
either like a deliberate snub to his former employers, or an act of boat-burning
desperation, or perhaps a quid pro quo to some other party. One report in
a Russian newspaper (denied by Snowden's American lawyer) says that once
in Hong Kong, he celebrated his 30th birthday at the Russian consulate, spending
two days there in all—mystifying behaviour for someone with his professed
ideals and motivation.90
It is possible that he was simply muddled and panicked. But for someone who
had years to hatch his plan, it seems odd that he would botch something as
important as the escape. Another (to me more plausible) explanation was that
he was bounced into seeking asylum in Moscow.
The first article based on Snowden's material (by Greenwald) appears on June
9th. Directly after that, Snowden disappears—apparently to stay with
friends in Hong Kong. But on June 11th, Putin offered him political asylum,
confirmed by the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov. On June 13th America opened
a criminal case against Snowden, on charges of espionage, and warned other
countries not to accept him. The net rapidly began to close: Iceland, a country
which had been considered a likely destination, since its leftist government
is sympathetic to whistleblowers and transparency causes, said it could consider
asylum only if he actually arrived in the country.
America seems to have moved with deplorable slowness. It was not until June
20th that it issued an extradition request (though Hong Kong said on June
16th that it would entertain one). Snowden promptly went to the Russian
consulate. On June 21st, America revoked Snowden's passport. He flew to Russia
with another travel document—apparently one issued by the government
of Ecuador via its embassy in London, where the fugitive WikiLeaks founder
Julian Assange ekes out a claustrophobic existence.
One way of interpreting this chain of events is as the result of pure muddle.
Snowden had no idea what to do. Neither did his friends. He ended up in Moscow
simply by chance, because events precluded any other option. It is also possible
to imagine that the Russian authorities might want him under their supervision.
One reason would be to get closer access to his secrets (or to the cryptographic
keys with which access to the secrets is controlled, if they are indeed not
in Russia). With his public utterances controlled, it would also be easier
to prevent him blurting out facts that would undermine the story of an innocent
whistleblower acting purely on his own initiative.
Certainly his arrival and stay in Moscow (with a year's temporary residence
granted speedily by the authorities) did not allay suspicions. Snowden's
lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, is a notable public figure, and founder of the
Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, a pro-Kremlin think-tank which aims
to counter Western propaganda on human rights. He is on the 'Public Council'
(a kind of advisory board) of the FSB, Russia's domestic security service.
Snowden's life in Moscow is shrouded with secrecy. He has a job, but nobody
knows where. Barring a brief, staged meeting with journalists and activists
at Moscow airport, he sees only his supporters. He has not given a proper
press conference or opened himself to any form of scrutiny (odd behaviour,
some might think, for an apostle of transparency). Nobody knows where he
lives. None of this inspires confidence in the idea that he is a free agent.
It supports the theory that he is a Russian one. Fitzpatrick has identified
the background to one of the rare photos issued of Snowden in Moscow: on
the basis of the distinctive striped pavements, the logo on a supermarket
trolley he is pushing, and other visual clues it is, she believes, a shopping
centre in Yasenevo, near Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service
I have spent the past months watching many of my media colleagues canonise
Edward Snowden. The picture of a lone campaigner fighting for freedom and
exposing abuses was initially captivating. But it didn't square with my own
knowledge of our security and intelligence services. He has damaged them
hugely, without exposing abuses that justify the damage. The story also didn't
fit my experience of Russia. From the available clues, and based on 30 years
of looking at Soviet and then Russian intelligence and propaganda operations,
my conclusion is that this affair has Kremlin fingerprints on it. They may
be faint and smudged, but they are there.
The operation would have one of the most prized virtues in
espionage—deniability. There is no smoking gun. Snowden is Snowden,
Greenwald is Greenwald, Appelbaum is Appelbaum and the Guardian is
the Guardian. All the components of the operation exist in authentic
form in the West. All it required were some gentle nudges to put them together.
How that happened may never be told. Perhaps a thorough and truthful account
of events from Snowden himself might give some clues: who were his friends
in those years between Geneva and Hawaii? What was he doing in India? How
did he really first come in contact with Appelbaum and Poitras? How exactly
did he end up in Moscow? Who has been looking after him there and under what
conditions? How did he choose what to steal and why? And what control does
he have over the selection of documents to be released? Such an account is
unlikely to be available soon, if ever.
I freely admit that it is possible that Snowden conceived his plan on his
own, and with honourable if mistaken motives. It may well be that his allies
are without exception enthusiastic and careless but not actually malevolent.
It may be that Russia has watched the whole affair with bemusement, was reluctant
to offer asylum, and is eager for him to leave. It is possible that Vladimir
Putin is entirely sincere, if ineffective, when he says he wants no damage
to be done to America as a result of Snowden's sojourn. It is all possible.
But unlikely. At any rate I find it scandalous that Snowden's defenders are
so blithe about his arrival and stay in Moscow. People who are so highly
(and I would say unreasonably) suspicious of Western governments become bizarrely
trusting where the interests and abilities of Vladimir Putin's regime are
Even if Russian intelligence is not involved, I cannot see the heroic virtues
in the Snowden affair which others have celebrated. Nobody has proved that
the NSA or GCHQ committed grave and deliberate breaches of the law. In the
big scandals of the 1960s, the FBI illegally bugged American citizens and
tried to blackmail the government's political opponents. For example, it
wanted to make Martin Luther King commit suicide, by threatening him with
the exposure of his adultery. No comparable examples have been produced now,
and I do not believe any will be. Nobody has produced individual victims
of illegal NSA activity. There is no evidence of wilful, systematic breaches
of the law by the NSA, or of contempt within its ranks, at any level, for
judicial and legislative oversight. There is no modern counterpart of J Edgar
Hoover, the brooding madman who brought the FBI to its darkest hour.
Without such evidence of wrongdoing, Snowden and his allies have no moral
authority for their actions. These include colossal breaches of secrecy and
trying to paralyse or destroy one of the most important limbs of national
security: tantamount to sabotage. Nobody elected them. Their decisions are
irreversible and not subject to appeal. Nobody will sack them if they make
a mistake. What right do they have to determine who is, as they put it,
'innocent'? What rights do the accused have in this public show trial, and
how can they defend themselves?
The charge sheet I have listed is long. How can a mere media outlet have
the expertise to know if stolen secrets can be safely published? Even if
it chooses not to publish them, how can it have the expertise to store them
safely? Why do they take official guidance seriously in the case of how to
prevent the gravest damage, but ignore the general principle that state secrets
should be kept, not stolen?
The Snowden affair is indeed a story of secrecy and deception—but not
on the side of the intelligence agencies. Far too little attention has been
paid to the political agendas of the Snowdenistas. They cloak their beliefs
in the language of privacy rights, civil liberties and digital freedoms.
But the ardent Snowdenistas part company with most of their fellow citizens
over the issue of whether an elected, law-governed government has the right
to keep and defend its secrets. Some of them dislike all intelligence and
security agencies on principle. By international standards, American scrutiny
of its intelligence and security agencies is unusually detailed and robust.
Yet anti-Americanism seems to blind the Snowdenistas to this vital point.
The NSA, GCHQ and other agencies, their political masters and their judicial
and legislative overseers have undoubtedly made mistakes. Far too much is
classified, at far too high a level. Far too many people have security
clearances. The administration of these clearances has become an industry,
rife with cronyism, bureaucracy and incompetence. If one proceeds on the
basis that anything remotely useful to the enemy should be a secret, then
everything ends up classified and nothing is really secure. It is far better
to classify selectively and effectively. 'Contractorisation', as Americans
term it, may save money and increase flexibility, but it also invites abuse,
carelessness and leaks. It is better to have a small, lean and secure
intelligence organisation, entirely in the public sector, than a large
public-private hybrid that leaks.
The single biggest lesson of the whole Snowden fiasco is that America's own
sloppiness made it vulnerable: whether to misguided whistleblowers, saboteurs
or foreign spies is secondary. The intelligence agencies and their political
and judicial overseers also need to do a much better job of explaining what
they do and why. The best defence against a Snowden-style leak is a broad
national consensus that the agencies are to be trusted and that the measures
they take are necessary. Sweden is exemplary in this respect.
It is important not to concentrate the defence case too narrowly on terrorism.
That is a grave threat, but not the only one. Invoking the attacks of September
11th 2001 as justification for everything the NSA does can be a powerful
defence, but it wears out with over-use. It invites pointed questions, like
how many terrorists did you catch by trawling meta-data? The answers may
be elusive. It is much better to justify intelligence operations on a broad,
prudential basis. A country like America faces a lot of threats and they
are constantly changing. Good intelligence capabilities provide a well-stocked
tool-kit for dealing with them. The traditional reluctance to discuss sources
and methods, for fear of rendering them useless in future, is well founded.
But in an atmosphere of suspicion, it is not wholly sustainable. Grim silence
is not going to restore public trust. It may be necessary to sacrifice some
degree of secrecy about past operations in order to win the backing needed
for future ones.
Dissent within the espionage world needs to be better managed. Intelligence
agencies are meant to be good at handling people. If your internal culture
is strong and expert enough to recruit and run agents, it should be capable
of managing your own staff too. If problems cannot be dealt with, the individual
concerned must be smoothly eased into other employment. Former intelligence
officers who express their discontent publicly do not automatically deserve
to be hounded. To be sure, some self-proclaimed whistleblowers have ended
their careers with well-deserved disciplinary sanctions. Others seem to have
gone slightly mad. But the literal-minded and sometimes vindictive-seeming
approach of prosecutors and investigators stokes the mistaken impression
that the intelligence agencies are out of control and persecute dissidents.
The oversight of the intelligence agencies needs to change. FISA court judges
should be appointed by the whole Supreme Court, not just by the chief justice.
The court's work is necessarily secret, so it must have the broadest possible
political support. It also needs a public defender or privacy advocate, with
a high security clearance, to challenge the agencies' contentions in individual
cases, in the adversarial tradition of American justice. Senior officials
must be seen to take responsibility for their mistakes. General Keith Alexander,
the head of the NSA, should have resigned as soon as the scale of the breach
became apparent. The organisation in which this happened—too big, too
commercial, too secretive, too vulnerable—was his creation. If this
is indeed, as officials plausibly maintain, the worst intelligence disaster
in American history, someone must be seen to take personal responsibility.
General Clapper too should resign, for having misled Congress, however
inadvertently. The strongest argument in rebutting Snowden's claims is that
the existing system already works and that its shortcomings are not so grave
that they require huge breaches of secrecy to galvanise reform. That contention
will be more widely accepted if individuals who break the rules then visibly
take the consequences.
Finally, it is tempting to see intelligence failures in a tidy, narrow context:
a failure of procedure here, a flawed personality there. But they usually
reflect broader problems: an agency or a country which cannot attract the
necessary loyalty. From this point of view, the Snowden fiasco exemplifies
not only problems inside America, but also in its relations with the rest
of the world. Spying on allies is a mere irritant when those alliances are
strong. When they are weak, it becomes a source of incendiary rows. In Brazil,
Indonesia, Mexico, Germany and many other countries, America no longer enjoys
the image it once had. Relationships have decayed; trust has ebbed. This
is not a new problem. George W Bush's administration made a bonfire of American
soft power with its botched war in Iraq. In different ways, the Obama
administration's remote, chilly and arrogant style has compounded the damage.
The rush of secret material into the public realm has distracted opinion
from the real issues: motives, benefits and damage. In the best case, Snowden
is a misguided whistleblower and his allies are merely reckless and naïve.
By whatever mixture of luck and skill they have successfully safeguarded
the most damaging and sensitive material and it will never reach our enemies.
The public debate is better informed. He has delivered, perhaps, some salutary
If so, all that comes at a great cost. We have lost capabilities built up
with great expenditure of time, money and skill. Our alliances are strained
and our standing in the world has suffered. The price is too high.
The nightmare is that the truth is far worse: Snowden is a pawn in a hostile
and continuing intelligence and information-warfare operation, with allthe
extra damage which that implies. Either way, Snowden's actions are no cause
for comfort, let alone celebration.
Edward Lucas is a senior editor at the Economist. A former foreign
correspondent with 30 years' experience in Russian and east European affairs,
he is the author of, among other publications, Deception (2011), which
deals with east-west espionage, and The New Cold War (2008), which
gave warning of the threat posed by Vladimir Putin's Russia. He is a non-resident
fellow at CEPA, a think-tank in Washington, DC. He lives in London and is
married to the writer Cristina Odone. He tweets as @edwardlucas. The
views expressed in this book are his alone.