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Snowden, NSA, and Counterintelligence

September 4, 2013

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.

  1. It would be nice if there was a financial trail one could follow to see how Snowden and his handlers were compensated for this. Money had to be involved. How much, and who got it, are the only questions that need to be answered.

    • The financial piece will be absolutely critical to the investigation, certainly.

  2. Your Guilty Conscience permalink


    Maybe too many years as a paranoid have taken their toll on your sanity.

    But the only “enemy” of the American nation around here is … YOU and YOUR PALS WHO THINK THEMSELVES OUR ROYAL MASTERS.

    Go to hell.

  3. pedro permalink

    Another fantastic post. Thank you so much for this insightful blog.

  4. Shelley permalink

    Wondered if you had heard the news about FEMEN as reported by The Independent in UK? Could it also be a Russian “cover mechanism of sorts”?

    • No idea, never looked into it. Russians of course have a long history of fake/controlled opposition groups, but I don’t venture guesses without some leads.

    • Homer Simpson permalink

      FEMEN was founded by Anna Hustol, Russian by birth but raised in Ukraine. One of the big bankrollers for the organization is Jed Sunden, an American citizen who has resided long term in Ukraine and owns media enterprises there. It was initially founded to protest the flesh trade in Ukrainian women (certainly not objectionable) but now it’s just a slew of anti-Christian peformance art/vandalism (harrassing priests, chainsawing down crosses, etc.). I suspect that Hutsol may have had pure motives at the onset (anti-prostitution), but the organization was hijacked by deep pocketed culture wreckers. You could connect the dots with time and google to get a better idea of who funds (controls) FEMEN and what their backgrounds and motivations are.

      Similarly – and this is just a guess – Wikileaks wasn’t initially a creature of Russian intelligence, but became so because an enterprising Russian intelligence agent saw an excellent opportunity to embarrass USG. Wikileaks decides to play along because $$$. It’s good to remember Joe Pesci’s timeless wisdom from CASINO: “Always the dollars, always the fucking dollars.”

  5. MLK permalink

    I read your terrific blog regularly. It’s informative — indeed fascinating. My only general criticism is that you don’t post more. However, your postings on the Snowdon affair fail to account for the self-inflicted wounds of the NSA, really the entire US surveillance/security apparatus. This behemoth is apparently surprised that many Americans hold it in low regard after revelations that that is exactly what it has thought of our basic liberties and privacy. Especially damaging in this regard are its longstanding relationships with foreign intelligence services and American corporations to strip mine and store indefinitely every bit of data, exploiting it for profit along with whatever other purposes may be appealing.

    I agree entirely that the assertion that these events are part of a Russian intelligence operation is not only worth considering but likely. But what also merits consideration is how compromised and captured the political echelon is by these surveillance programs. — and thus how neutered they have become in their key oversight and control functions?

    • Thanks for your feedback. Wish I had time to blog more.

      Image of NSA currently in public mind, thanks to Wikileaks et al, is simply a fraud, a bad caricature. Keep that in mind.

      • gerber permalink

        The power seems to be expanding and Americans realize that nothing about ourselves belong to us. It’s a bubble slowly forming in the American psyche.. the biggest danger the NSA and other agencies face is protecting a public that no longer wants it’s protection. Like a jealous ex boyfriend. American public really won’t tolerate intelligence used for domestic law enforcement purposes. Spy on governments to your heart is content… turn those eyes inward and a really nasty vibe and consensus is forming. A government that has no trust from it’s governed needs to pause and think. A generation of Americans that doesn’t support is government is scary, especially when times get tough. As they always do cyclically.

      • NSA isn’t a jealous ex-boyfriend. NSA doesn’t care about you at all – unless you’re in bed with FIS or FTO – and it makes you crazy, doesn’t it?

      • MLK permalink

        The US government’s surveillance of American citizens is not the bug defenders of these programs have always contended. It is a feature. We have exited the period where Americans generally believe the official denials. In other words, a perception that used to be limited to an ideological and political fringe is now widely held. It is deeply naive to believe that won’t have serious consequences for our nation generally, and our foreign intelligence capability specifically.

        I know that neither you nor anyone else engaged in this is within a mile of naive. Conceding the point, especially in a blog exchange, is a very different matter. Moreover, there is anything but naïveté evidenced in the USG’s response — coercion and implied threats to opponents of a surveillance state — and i am not, repeat not, talking here about Snowdon et. al. The oft-repeated “If you’re not doing anything wrong you have nothing to worry about” so begs the question as to the definition of “wrong” held by those possessing this power in secret it is an insult (to the intelligence) added to the injury.

        Previously you pointed out that spying is either the oldest or second oldest profession. What is even older, for it is part of the human condition, is the desire for power and resources. Defenders of this capability can and will continue to repeat “trust us” but increasing numbers of Americans do not and, my essential point is that they should not.

        I fear that we are near or even past the point where these agencies I refer to under the rubric of the surveillance state even need to argue their case to the American people.

      • I love your enthusiasm.

  6. George permalink

    You should have a link to the “Illegals program” Wikipedia page for those who do not know. I personally thought you were referring to illegal aliens.

    Illegals Program

  7. Bob permalink

    “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.”

    And what an act it’s been. You’re also a linguist, John. “Strange guy”? Happy with that translation? Is Snowden the hill you want to die on?

    If I were you, I’d put this chapter behind me and focus on preventing a disaster in Syria.

  8. Vincent J. permalink

    I’m glad I’ve discovered your blog. I was a big fan of John Barron’s books a few decades ago. I recently read “Comrade J,” and I have “The Sword and the Shield,” and “The World Was Going Our Way” on my shelves waiting for the day I find the energy to tackle such thick volumes. Keep up the good work.

  9. H. C. permalink

    I think You’re the mole.

  10. I always thought of FEMEN as a group that Russia was worried about being infiltrated by the west. I mean Nixon was worried about the anti war movement being infiltrated by the KGB, and considering active measures, i dont think it was unfounded.

  11. Alejo C. permalink

    Interesting theory on Snowden, but it doesn’t really make sense. If Snowden were recuited by the FSB it was long before Hong Kong– it would have more likely happened in Switzerland or Japan.

    However, the idea that Snowden’s FSB handler (if he had one as you suppose) would let him turn over his cache of documents to Greenwald and Poitras–journalists–is unthinkable for any intelligence officer, since it diminishes the value of the information –plus you can’t trust a journalist because they will blow your cover in a heartbeat.

    Though it must be hard for the intelligence community to see so many targets now going dark I think what Snowden did will ultimately be very healthy for the intelligence community. It will lead to a better focus on intelligence priorities and require more trust with our allies. Plus the overreliance on electronic eavesdropping has made the US blind to some very real threats that use code words and/or counterespionage to get around NSA’s net.

    I wondered why Snowden went to Moscow until I realized it was the only place on earth where the CIA couldn’t get to him, with all those FSB agents around. Only journalists could get close, but not very close. Of course he got cornered and Moscow was the only place to go. The U.S. should have let him go to Venezuela where they could have at least had some limited access to him.

    • You say things are “unthinkable” for an intelligence service. Which one did you serve with? FSB? You claim to know what they would or would not do.

      • Your interpretation of the Snowden narrative is well-told.

        And it’s not that I don’t want to defer to your authority, but still: aren’t you arguing purely from authority here, when you fill in the gaps? Because honestly, that’s not helpful for those who are trying to discern the underlying probabilities of Snowden’s motivations, sans cinematic leaps.

        Naive question, and forgive me if you’ve answered this previously: What precedent is there for a Russian spy giving journalists (or whatever you prefer to call Greenwald) carte blanche over the time, place, and publication of sensitive documents?

      • Oh “authority” …. you mean I actually know what I’m talking about? Yeah, that’s a terrible thing. For idiots online.

        Read Mitrokhin, best UNCLAS source on RIS tradecraft, and get back to me when you know a tiny, little bit.

  12. Joseph C. permalink

    You forgot to point out another important link of Wikileaks as Russian spy’s which is Russia Today, the state english and international news channel, that has clearly had a bias in protecting Wikileaks and Assange.

  13. Absolutely delighted to have found your site !

    I’ve been reading (with disgust) about “our poor Edward” -and arguing many pf the same points you bring up.

    Nolle Carborundum Illegitamati

  14. Heath permalink

    As a Deaf person who uses American Sign Language everyday. I have thought about the possibility that Snowden was a Russian intelligence agent because of his behavior & monetary and travel gains. He was bought by Soviet intelligence agents looking for a way into America’s defense & offense organizations. Now that Snowden has defected to Moscow. My concern is that Putin could get him trained up on what he needs to know for his next mission possibly on American soil. Snowden is clearly a national security risk. I hope the CIA and various American defense & offense organizations are actively hunting Snowden’s ” Russian snow tracks ” inside Russia to terminate him for good in the name of American national security before Snowden is even able to make it out of the military gate of some kind to go on another mission for Russia.

    • Ed has delivered himself to FSB. His life already sucks.

      • g2-434940158776a46c22d802cb34c0b465 permalink

        Yep, however I find Putin’s comments suspicious because Deaf people always ” reverse read ” what someone’s comments are and consider several possible scenarios. This is very un-characteristic of Putin perhaps his comments can be as in military parlance ” reverse engineered ” for clues to where the den of Snowden is so that American intelligence agents can whack him for good. Here is the suspicious article that raised my eyebrows. I think Snowden is on a Russian military base or one of the many possible places inside Russia territory. The reticle scope of Putin’s KGB’s thinking patterns reflects on what Putin’s comments said in the article can be seen here:

  15. John Newcomb permalink

    More fallout from Royal Canadian Navy spy for Russia, Delisle – a “Russia Watchers’ Conference”. Underscoring your point that Canadian government downplaying this breach of security, article concludes with “The diplomatic fallout between Ottawa and Moscow was minimal”.:

    “Summit of Canada’s ‘Russia Watchers’ gathered in wake of Delisle’s arrest”:

  16. Sheldon Wester permalink

    The amount of crazy people commenting here is amazing.

    Yea yea, the Jews control the world; the Rothschild family control the banks, bla bla. If you are going to spew out this crud try to make the read a bit interesting.

  17. john Casey permalink

    On one hand it could be argued that your view of Snowden, et. al., as a tool of Russian intelligence is an example of a Cold Warrior looking at the world through Cold-Warrior-colored glasses. On the other hand, it also could be argued that since all of Snowden’s releases have been merely politically embarrassing (nothing that wasn’t revealed in Binney’s “whistleblowing” on the NSA three years ago) that Russia is behind him. All just the usual spy vs. spy shit that amounts of nothing in the end.

    I find it endlessly amusing that the US intelligence apparatchiks still try to dole out the warmed over “were protecting national security” nonsense after the condom bomber fiasco. Honestly, you can’t make this shit up.

    • The current drip-drip of Guardian stories c/o Snowden – this week on the US-Israeli SIGINT relationship – is without precedent in its political implications WRT NSA and the IC. Highly damaging.

  18. So if I understand you correctly we have a much bigger breach than one would conclude based on the mainstream news from the Guardian. Not only can (and does) the NSA collect pretty much everything anyone does in the digital realm by breaking systems and breaking into systems. They then are unable to protect this sigint goldmine from falling into the hands the agents of foreign intelligence organisations. So now all are data is in the hands of both the US and Russian governments. This begs the question what other organisations have deep-cover moles inside the NSA using its infrastructure to do the hard works of global sigint for them? The Chinese government? A South-American drugs Cartel? Private Military Companies? Journalists-activist-terrorists? Goldman Sachs? The implications are astounding.

    If what you say it true the disaster is exponentially much bigger than it would initially appear to be and this has very little to do with ‘damage’ to the US image or its ability to do intelligence. First America gave the world the Internet as a global comms infrastructure and now it has given an unknown number of unaccountable actors the keys to this infrastructure to do with as they please.

    A Russian/Chinese/Israeli/Iranian spy will benefit both from the sigint collected by the NSA systems and even more from the info about what the US Intel community is (and is not) looking at. They could maybe also manipulate the collection process to steer the NSA away from things they would like to remain unseen (any serious spy organisation would spend a lot of resources on creating that ability since the US has made itself totally dependent on sigint).

    If the NSA in not capable of controlling access to this data they are better of not collecting it at all for these reasons. If the NSA has created a global spying machine who’s output the cannot control perhaps it would be best to shut the whole thing down *today*.

  19. Excellent Site, Keep up the great work. thnx!

  20. A bit late to the party on this article, but a great writeup

  21. west permalink

    why cant they find his spending trail or how much was his accomplice were compensated. this has surely cause self-inflicted wounds of the NSA, really the entire US surveillance/security apparatus. also believe that these statement are a apart of the Russia’s intelligence operations.

  22. Jacksonian permalink

    “The amount of crazy people commenting here is amazing.” Yes Mr. Wester, it’s astounding how many commenters will leave remarks here fantasizing about infiltrating Russia to whack Snowden. To which I can only say: good luck with that guys. And what Arjen said. “Collect everything” and collate it in one place, particularly even the ‘metadata’ of ‘who’s (calling) screwing whom’ in Washington, to quote the Jon Voigt NSA villain in “Enemy of the State”, is a Russian/Chinese deep cover mole’s wet dream.

  23. Observer permalink

    I, too, have been thinking the very same thing. It seemed rather obvious. He’s “learning” the Russian language – he likely already knew it. Anyway, I don’t claim to know a lot, hopefully I don’t look too foolish in front of you. I’m just observing.
    I think Snowden has been feigning from the beginning. This is a guy who looks Russian, valued and aided by the Russians (despite threatening relationship with the United States) could be Russian. If it talks like a duck, walks like a duck… I mean didn’t the U.S. just throw out MORE spies from Russia recently? You’re likely to have them try to dissuade people from believing your points/”discovery” altogether. I believe I’ve seen them in other comment sections from other articles. They say the same things over and over like “you watch too many movies”, “You don’t know what you’re talking about”, etc. Snowden is no hero to me – only to those who have something to hide.
    Trojan horse, no movie – actual event. I think a History book on War/Battle stragedy would easily refute their claims.
    Thank you for writing this and putting it out there. I would have been with you since the moment you announced Snowden is Russian intelligence. Sorry, if I’m laughable to you. But I think you’re cool. Please, keep writing.

  24. Alan Balmer permalink

    The problem is the US administration and their fear of the truth. These guys have to go!

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