Snowden, NSA, and Counterintelligence
Ever since the remarkable case of Edward Snowden broke into the limelight at the beginning of the summer that’s now winding down, I’ve had a great deal to say about it here, on Twitter, and on radio and television. As one of the very few former NSA officers who’s in the public eye and willing to talk about Snowden, I’ve had an audience. As a former NSA counterintelligence officer with experience dealing with the Russians, I’ve been pretty much a solo act.
From nearly the outset I’ve stated that Snowden is very likely an agent of Russian intelligence; this was met with howls of indignation which have died down in recent weeks as it’s become apparent that Ed’s staying in Russia for some time, along with whatever classified materials he had on his person. (Since Glenn Greenwald’s partner when stopped by British authorities at Heathrow had 58,000 highly classified documents on him, thanks to Ed, one can only wonder how big the initial haul actually was.) That Snowden was in contact with the Russian consulate in Hong Kong during his pre-Moscow visit there, including spending his 30th birthday with his new friends, is now admitted. Even President Vladimir Putin has conceded that Ed’s contacts with Russian officials did not commence when he landed at Sheremtyevo airport, rather before.
But when? That of course is the key question that NSA counterintelligence surely wants – needs – to know. All roads here lead to Wikileaks. We know that Snowden in late 2012 reached out to Glenn Greenwald and other members of the spy-ring – all of whom can be considered cut-outs for Wikileaks when not paid-up members – that stands behind the massive leaks. After making this contact, Ed took a contractor job with Booz Allen Hamilton to increase his access to NSA secrets. I’ve been stating for a while now that Wikileaks is functionally an extension of Russian intelligence; it’s become a minor meme as a few journalists have decided that such a scandalous viewpoint is worth considering.
Of course, for anyone versed in the ways of Russian intelligence, the notion that Wikileaks is a Moscow front that’s involved in anti-US espionage is about as controversial as, say, the notion that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Running false flags, creating fake activist groups, using Western journalists and activists for deception purposes – this sort of thing is in the DNA of Russian intelligence going back to the 19th century and is second nature to them. They call espionage tradecraft konspiratsiya (conspiracy) for a reason.
While there can be little doubt that the damage Snowden has wrought to the US and Allied SIGINT system is nothing less than immense, it will be some time before NSA and the US Government make any public pronouncements on such a touchy matter – not to mention that it will likely be several months yet before the Intelligence Community completes what will surely rank as the Mother of All Damage Assessments.
Without in any way diminishing the espionage losses that young Mr Snowden has caused, I want to suggest that the political damage in this case may loom larger, particularly as Putin savors his big win in this round, having humiliated American intelligence as it’s never quite been publicly humiliated before. The onetime Chekist in Putin surely is going to bed at night with a smile these days. “There are no ‘former’ intelligence officers,” Russia’s president once famously said, and he was also talking about himself.
But what of the actual espionage losses caused by Ed Snowden? Context matters here, and although the U.S. media hardly covered it, readers of this blog are aware that last year saw the unfolding of a spy scandal in Canada that was simply vast in its implications. Canadian naval officer Jeffrey Delisle for nearly five years before his detection was regularly passing huge amounts of classified information to Russian military intelligence (GRU). Every month or so, Delisle would leave his desk in the intelligence fusion center in Halifax with a memory stick filled with top secret information to sell to the Russians.
Moreover, Delisle is a trained intelligence officer – unlike Snowden, who is no more than an IT guy with little if any operational intelligence experience – and it’s apparent that much of what he gave away to GRU was SIGINT from NSA and its Five Eyes partners (British GCHQ, Canadian CSEC, Australian DSD, New Zealand GCSB). The Russians seemed to have really cleaned up with this one, and despite efforts from ministers in Ottawa to downplay what Delisle did, Canadian senior intelligence officials have made clear that the case is without precedent in its damage and implications, far beyond Canada.
Simply put, one must wonder, after nearly five years of Delisle selling the Russians all the Five Eyes TOP SECRET/ SCI data he could get his hands on, how much there really was about NSA, GCHQ, et al, that Moscow didn’t already know. Perhaps Snowden is, if not exactly a patsy, a none-too-clever fellow – Putin today called Ed “a strange guy” – whose main purpose is causing pain and suffering to Washington, DC. Which, let it be said, he has done rather well, thanks to the propaganda offensive waged by Greenwald, Poitras, and their helpers in several countries, with Ed’s purloined information, and who have masked their radical activism under the (thin) guise of post-modern journalism.
Part of a counterintelligence officer’s job is detecting patterns, linkages between cases, that normal people don’t see. When the large Illegals network run by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) in the United States was rolled up by the FBI in mid-2010, with the arrest and expulsion of ten deep-cover SVR agents, Moscow was humiliated, a pain that Putin seems to have absorbed personally. Illegals, after all, are the jewel in the crown of Russian HUMINT, an elite cadre of spies. Although the U.S. media mainly focused on the redheaded vixen Anna Chapman, ignoring what she and her spy-partners were actually doing in their secret lives, counterintelligence professionals were left with awkward questions, not least because, in Russian practice, Illegals are useful for undertaking highly sensitive tasks, including handling truly deep-cover agents working for Moscow.
To the surprise of absolutely zero veteran counterspies, it soon emerged that the roll-up of the SVR Illegals network in 2010 set off a molehunt inside U.S intelligence, including at NSA. There were actually several Russian moles said to be embedded inside the Intelligence Community, including at least one at NSA. Since there have no public announcements of the detection or arrest of any Russian moles in the IC, it appears that those individuals have not been caught.
Thus we are left with the discomforting realization that, between undetected moles, Delisle, and Snowden, NSA and its sister agencies have been deeply penetrated by Russian intelligence in recent years. What, then, is the exact role being played by Ed and his motley crew of “anti-secrecy activists” who seem hellbent on exposing as many NSA (and GCHQ) programs as they can?
It is possible that Snowden’s appearance on the radar of Russian intelligence – presumably late in 2012, almost certainly through Wikileaks – actually represents a cover mechanism of sorts for Moscow. Tasked now with an enormous damage assessment and trying to uncover if Snowden had any helpers inside NSA, it seems unlikely that IC counterintelligence experts will have the resources or manpower anytime soon to find the Russian moles who may be deeply embedded inside NSA and related U.S. intelligence agencies.
If that sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t, because Moscow has done exactly this sort of thing before, with considerable success. Very little can be said with certainty at this point, though a clearer picture will emerge with time. Suffice to say that experienced counterintelligence hands, accustomed to living with the vaunted “wilderness of mirrors” that comes with playing spygames with Moscow, are asking the right questions.
In the meantime it would be a step in the right direction for the U.S. and Allied governments to start treating Wikileaks like the front for hostile intelligence that it actually is. Right now, President Obama is contemplating bombing Syria and possibly starting a new war in the Middle East. Surely he can find the strength to call Wikileaks what it actually is, a far easier thing to achieve.