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The End of the Snowden Operation

January 18, 2014

For over half a year now, the world has been astounded by waves of leaked revelations of National Security Agency electronic espionage, provided by the former NSA IT contractor Edward Snowden, who stole something like 1.7 million classified documents before fleeing to Russia via Hong Kong. There’s never been anything quite like this in the annals of America’s – or really anybody’s – intelligence system. Snowden’s act and its global media reverberations have been one of a kind.

From nearly the outset, I have drawn attention to the obvious foreign intelligence connections to the Snowden case – and obvious they are to anyone familiar with counterintelligence, particularly Russian – and for some time I have termed this sorry spectacle the Snowden Operation, since we don’t know the covername actually given it by Russian intelligence. But, at its core, this is simply an updated version of the operational game played in the 1970s by Cuban and Soviet intelligence with the CIA defector Phil Agee (KGB covername: PONT), who authored, with KGB “help,” several books exposing U.S. intelligence operations, particularly in Latin America. While Agee didn’t tell the Cubans and Soviets much classified that they didn’t really know already, at least generally, for Washington, DC, and particularly for CIA, it was a huge embarrassment that hampered activities in many countries for many years.

The Snowden Operation has been really no more than the Agee show brought into the 21st century and the Internet age. Who needs whole books of leaks when there are websites and “journalists” happy to disseminate it all, usually with deeply flawed “analysis” to boot? Over the last seven months the world has become accustomed to regular leaks of NSA programs that, before last May, individually would have been jaw-dropping in many capitals. Now, well, it’s just Tuesday.

Additionally, the Snowden Operation has engendered not merely complications for U.S. foreign policy, but a blistering domestic debate to boot, just as its architects intended. There is now a considerable cadre of Americans, an odd alliance of leftist bitter-enders, libertarian Randians, and battalions of dudebros who thrive on snark and hating their parents, that is convinced that NSA is the source of all their problems. That this is demonstrably untrue has made little difference, and will not.

However, yesterday President Obama ended the political debate about the Snowden Operation with his much-anticipated speech about NSA and reform, based on the recommendations of his own panel. As my colleague Tom Nichols and I have long predicted, the reform package Obama has delivered is a stinging defeat for the NSA haters. Yes, it will be more difficult for NSA analysts to access metadata, but access it they will. Yes, NSA collection against top foreign leaders will be restricted, somewhat, but Agency support to U.S. and Allied diplomacy will continue. The bottom line is that President Obama’s reforms contain no significant changes to how NSA does business as the leading foreign intelligence agency in the United States and the free world.

These reforms go some distance to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens better, which I’ve wanted for a long time anyway, but even the changes to metadata holdings have been kicked by Obama to Congress for resolution, which will be difficult, since telecom companies understandably have little interest in involving themselves further in what’s become a touchy mess. In all, Obama – many of whose national security policies of late I’ve been critical of – performed masterfully yesterday, delivering a near pitch-perfect speech and resetting the agenda on intelligence matters.

Predictably, the NSA haters have gone bonkers. Somehow, in a fest of self-delusion that must rival anything done by the Reverend Jim Jones to his ill-fated followers, many convinced themselves that Obama might shut down NSA and have its leaders frog-walked into Federal custody, if not simply shot without trial. Alas, nothing of the sort was ever going to happen. In part because no White House will ever shut down its top source of foreign intelligence, or can afford to. But mostly because the hysterical charges we’ve seen thrown at NSA – that it violates the privacy of “hundreds of millions,” many American – for months were essentially false.

Haters will hate, as is their wont, and I’ve frankly enjoyed the bouts of online hysteria from Snowden fanboys since yesterday, involving a gnashing of teeth of epic proportions (for a so-perfect-it-cannot-be-parodied combination of ignorance and sanctimony, Conor Friedersdorf is impossible to top). But the game’s over, Obama just blew the whistle.

There’s much work to be done, naturally, and Congress will spend the rest of 2014 hashing out just what the President’s reforms should actually look like in application (expect a long, needlessly drawn out catfight on The Hill, like everything there), but the White House has shut the door on the ridiculous, overheated spectacle that the Snowden Operation dumped on our Intelligence Community.

None have any expectation that the leaks will stop, given the unimaginably huge amount of Top Secret documents from NSA and Allied agencies that Snowden stole, but the humdrum effect has already set in. The world has become accustomed to such a regular barrage of revelations about NSA that, unless the Iranians are correct that aliens really are running things at Fort Meade (they’re not, I checked), few of these will be front page stories any longer.

The Snowden Operation has guaranteed that NSA has become a global stand-in for unmitigated evil for certain people, a Keyser Söze who reads your email, and there’s not much that Washington, DC, and its friends can do about that. But the real intent of Ed, Glenn, and their coterie was never intelligence reform, rather the destruction of NSA and the Western intelligence alliance. As of yesterday, we know that will not happen. Henceforth, you’ll occasionally encounter people who are obsessed with “NSA” and think the Agency reads their texts of cat pictures, but these are the same sort of people who, in a previous age, were obsessed with Knights Templar, Jews, and Masons, and can be ignored when adults are talking.

I say “NSA” because the global meme fostered online by the Snowden Operation bears so little resemblance to what the Agency actually is and does. Planet Greenwald has done a weirdly masterful job of placing “NSA” in the same category as “UFOs”, “Kennedy Assassination,” “Bigfoot,” and “Area 51″: there actually is something deep down there that might possibly be true, but it’s so buried under hyperbole and fantasy as to be unfathomable as any reality.

I say this with regret, as someone who was calling for reforms of the Intelligence Community, especially NSA, before anybody heard of Edward Snowden. Real reform is impossible now, for at least a generation, because the Snowden Operation has so soiled the cause of real IC reform with treachery, narcissism, crankery, and Putin’s Russia. I worry that today’s modest reforms may not be able to keep up with rapid changes in IT. Privacy concerns about NSA are entirely valid, and had the Snowden Operation confined its leaks to issues of purely domestic surveillance, that healthy and necessary debate about post-9/11 intelligence might have happened, at last. But Ed went to Russia, where he remains. The real drivers of the Snowden Operation never sought a domestic debate about NSA, that was never their agenda, so here we are. Winston Churchill famously termed the Allied victory at El Alamein in late 1942 as not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Now we’re a bit further along than that in the Snowden Operation.

Discussions of NSA and especially “NSA” will be prominent online and in the real world for years to come. The Agency has lost its cover, for better or worse. As I’ve said before, I hope the Agency uses this opportunity to rebrand itself in a spirit of openness to the American people about its essential mission, which the public has a right to know more about. Regardless, the Agency will survive and its personnel – military, civilian, and contractor – will keep protecting our country and our allies. Before long people will be asking, “What ever happened to that ‘strange guy‘ who defected to Russia?” Once the Snowden Operation kicked off – when exactly that was remains an open question of high interest to counterintelligence investigators in dozens of countries – there was never going to be any other outcome.

57 Comments
  1. Janine Cohen permalink

    Where do you get the idea that the public has the “right to know “?
    That myth has caused great damage to the function of government

    • The public surely does not have the right to know “all” but we live in an age when Americans are deeply dependent on IT for everything beyond basic bodily functions. A bit of transparency goes a long way.

    • Iam permalink

      Of course the public has a right to know. Because in a democracy they are the substrate of the state. The people lend power to institutions for their own good.
      They have to know if cancer spreads in the body of the state.

      • Ianlb permalink

        There’s a difference between pushing for more government transparency, and asking for complete and unabridged access to all government data and documents, which is basically how some proponents of government transparency sound. The first is a legitimate expectation of liberal democracies, but the second isn’t compatible with the proper conduct of international affairs. You can’t expect an intelligence agency to be open about its capabilities and operations, the same way you can’t expect a military to be open about its battle plans.

      • Janine Cohen permalink

        Have you forgotten? We elect people to run the government. Leave them alone. They have enough to do. You how destructive micro-managing is. Do you want to leave decisions to the public who don’t have a clue or care unless it affects them personally.

    • Sorry I couldn’t find the part of the Constitution authorizing the National Security State.

      “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law; and a regular statement and account of receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time.”
      - US Constitution

      • Or freedom for black people. Shall we re-enslave them then?

      • Even in 1776 the United States government had spies. It’s been accepted since the beginning of our country that dirty deeds need to be done off the books.

        But we have gone a long way since the 1960s, when those dirty deeds were quite terrible.

  2. “The real intent of Ed, Glenn, and their coterie,” writes John, “was never intelligence reform, rather the destruction of NSA and the Western intelligence alliance.” Of course it’s impossible to divine their true intent—i.e., presuming their professed intent is dishonest—but I suspect it goes deeper than destroying NSA and our intel partnerships. Greenwald in particular seems devoutly anti-American, waging a tireless zealot’s crusade to humiliate the U.S. government far beyond our national security apparatus.

    As such, Snowden & Greenwald inevitably remind me of their immediate forebears, Manning & Assange. During last summer’s court-martial, the Army prosecutor dubbed Manning and his WikiLeaks conduit “information anarchists.” The term likewise befits Ed & Glenn. Their goal is to bring the USA to its knees as surely as al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center.

    While it may be true that what John Schindler calls the Snowden Operation is finished, we have not heard the last of these self-righteous fanatics.

  3. I am glad you mention the allies. The Snowden Operation has, as far as I can understand, not only damaged US interests but also interests within the alliance and interests of the countries that has bilateral agreements with the alliance.

  4. @DefendOurFree permalink

    Observation.

    There are whitepapers that show the NSA has tools that can break any encryption.

    If true, Snowden may have had access to those tools.

    The recent credit card breaches show that Target had the PIN numbers stolen.

    The press releases the carder sites release on the file share sites advertise the cards with decrypted PINS and fullz on the card holders.

    Brian Krebs discovered that some involved with the carder breach belong to, Vkontakte.ru. See Brian’s post: http://krebsonsecurity.com/2014/01/a-first-look-at-the-target-intrusion-malware/

    This has been disputed as a rumor; but, this site says Edward Snowden works for Vkontakte.ru: http://www.orlytaitzesq.com/?p=438857

    Could Snowden be involved with decrypting all the PINS for the card breaches? Just throwing that out there.

  5. fjpoblam permalink

    Agreed: “no significant changes”. The cat is out of the bag. When a tweet appeared with a link citing a summary of the changes Obama had made, I fully expected a link to a blank page.

  6. What “real reforms” do you believe are necessary, that you think have been foreclosed by the Snowden disclosures?

    At the end of the day it seems like the major philosophical question is whether accumulating a huge database containing information from American communications (i.e., collecting the haystack) is OK so long as it is only queried under very tightly constrained authorities. If you use the NSA’s official position that data is only “intercepted” when the database is queried, then there shouldn’t be any problem with the practices which Bill Binney is concerned about in your Shamrock 2.0 blog post.

    If you side with the civil libertarians’ perspective that once the database is collected, at some point in the future it could be used for much more nefarious uses, then you might prefer that the data not be collected in the first place, and at the very least, that it should not be held by the NSA. (Whether some other organization would actually be more trustworthy is indeed a very interesting question.)

    Personally, my biggest concern is with the alleged tampering with the Dual EC DRBG NIST standard. My belief is that it really did happen, given how carefully evasive the answers were in the Lawfare interviews with the NSA senior leadership, and given the very careful parsing of the words in the Review Board. (It stated that there as no tampering with encryption standards which allow a foreign intelligence agency access to the encryped data. Given how cryptographers have demonstrated how you could introduce a back door into Dual EC such that only someone who knew the secret key would have access, that would be consistent with the very careful language in the Review Board report, and it would also be consistent with how discussion of the cryptographic random number standards was conspicuously absent in the appendix of that report.) The technique also tracks with the Clipper Chip proposal which was heavily pushed by the NSA; putting a back door into hardware — or an cryptographic algorithm — such that the back door would only be available to “the good guys”.

    The problem is that because of this, the rest of the world might stop trusting US standards, and software and hardware products sold by US companies. So there may be some massive collateral damage on the US tech industry as a result. Whether you blame this on Snowden or on the NSA for tampering with an encryption standard is a question for which different people will assign blame differently based on how they feel about Snowden and the NSA.

    • Real issue is that a real debate about post-9/11 intelligence norms is now impossible, for decades, because the entire subject has been tainted by treason, wackiness, and fanaticism. Not too many members of Congress will want to stand with the guy who defected to Putin’s Russia. Hence, no real debate.

      • tytso permalink

        It doesn’t seem to me a real debate about the post-9/11 intelligence norms would have _ever_ happened, unless there was some kind of external triggering event. Given the positions articulated by Keith Alexander, Chris Inglis, James Clapper, and others, including the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, it seems that a real debate was always going to be impossible.

        Or do you believe that somehow, if Snowden had never existed, at at some point, this debate really would have taken place? If so, who do you think would have initiated it, and where do you think the debate would have taken place? (i.e., in Congress, behind closed doors by people who, absent unauthorized disclosures, would suffer no political penalties about massive date collection on Americans, but would suffer greatly if a terrorist act takes place and they are asked, “why did you not connect the dots”?)

      • Snowden et al have “enabled a conversation about intelligence” in a manner similar to how the Nazis “enabled a conversation about Jews.”

      • tytso permalink

        The question is whether or not Snowden “enabled a conversation about intelligence”, but whether (as you have asserted) Snowden has made a “real debate about post-9/11 intelligence impossible”. If it such a debate was never going to happen before Snowden’s unauthorized disclosures, then it’s somewhat illogical to claim that he made them impossible, since they were never going to happen both before and after June 7, 2013.

        I’ll also note that Reductio ad Hitlerum is a “ad misericordiam” fallacy. Is that really your strongest argument?

        I’d love to hear your thoughts concerning my unanswered question: what do you think are the proper “real reforms” that you think are necessary, and what is the forum where you think they could and should have taken place, if Snowden’s disclosures hadn’t happened?

      • Don’t like getting called out, I see. I will post in the future about where NSA/IC reform may go from here.

      • ‘Snowden et al have “enabled a conversation about intelligence” in a manner similar to how the Nazis “enabled a conversation about Jews.”’

        I remember Mike Godwin posting how he was going to start charging people five bucks a violation.

    • Arik permalink

      I am not sure there is a violation of Godwin’s law here. It skirts the line but Snowden is not being compared to the Nazi’s or that there is a slippery slope to lead to nazi like actions. His desire to start a discussion of privacy actually enabled dictators all around the world to more effectively spy and oppress their own citizens. While Americans may or may not gain more rights to privacy, the mass release of documents guarantees more Russians and Chinese dissidents have less privacy. The tricks Snowden revealed will sooner or later be employed by people with even less scrupples then the U.S. Governement. Many more people are going to be risking life and liberty when they protest their own governments. Maybe an anology about extremes and Nazi’s is over the top and maybe not.

  7. Quiet fellow permalink

    A well-thought out, careful and accurate analysis of the situation in my personal opinion. I suspect that in the long haul, after some of the more immediate public damage, smoke and fog has abated, that these events will actually benefit NSA in terms of public opinion. While some segment of the US population will spin off in some conspiracy theory bound fugue, I suspect that the revelations made public from this intelligence disaster will actually soften some previous public hysteria about the intelligence community and in some cases garner the services some historically unlikely allies.

    As for Mr. Snowden, as I mentioned some time back to another individual with dealings in the community, he is about to become a very lonely man. The best course of action – from my personal perspective – would be to continue to keep the pressure up on him as well as governments who might be sympathetic towards him and his actions. I suspect that if that happens, in the end there is a reasonably decent probability that he will voluntarily return or make a mistake that will result in him being taken into custody on some foreign but friendly shore. At that point there are some serious decisions to be made about how to proceed from there and decisions that the administration takes great care in making.

  8. Talk about being wrapped around your own axles.

  9. Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    As usual, an excellent, well-thought-out post–followed by an intelligent discussion.
    Thank you, Dr. Schindler !!

  10. brian permalink

    RE: the aliens
    Hate to break it to you, but here it is.

    Enjoy the probings, earthling……..

  11. foreman permalink

    Ah yes, Philip Agee, having seen the brutality and amorality of CIA policy in the Americas, decided to shack up with the Russians and Cubans because otherwise he’d be dead or in a dungeon. I’m not sure you’re making the point you want to by invoking his name alongside Edward Snowden. If you mean to convince me that Snowden, out of fear for his own safety, had no choice but to side with the Russians, then great job.

    “While Agee didn’t tell the Cubans and Soviets much classified that they didn’t really know already, at least generally, for Washington, DC, and particularly for CIA, it was a huge embarrassment that hampered activities in many countries for many years.”

    That quote is another thing I find pretty hilarious with regard to your Agee hate, its like you don’t even realize what CIA was doing in Latin America during those years. Installing military dictators and violently repressing native populations to “stop the spread of communism” (with the ancillary benefits of preserving access to low wage labor and natural resources for US corporations) is not a noble policy goal. “Hampering” those activities, on the other hand… but I guess you have to have a sense of human decency to see that as a noble policy goal.

  12. kruzenslow permalink

    All I wish to know is who vetted Snowden? How was he able to defeat password protected domains? Was he allowed to to operate without any control? Whatever happened to compartmental organization? Why was a contractor given a high enough security clearance to even access all this data and move it from one server to another? Should this have been a better controlled operation using vetted employees?

    A system admin is one of the most powerful entity’s in the IT world and it seems NSA was quite ignorant regarding of this fact by using contractors to manage sensitive data….

    • OEF/OIF VET permalink

      To associate contractor status with degree of loyalty to the United States is a weak argument and offensive to the great number of contractors who serve with honor as their government counterparts do. What exactly is the correlation between being a contractor and treason? We are all serving our country, and we are not to blame for defense cuts/spending/hiring.

      • I’ve been a defense/IC contractor too, get over yourself.

      • You may have misunderstood my questions. Contractors have always been a major part of the operations of the various agencies and no one has questioned their patriotism. My first question was relevant because after my comment it was revealed that the outsourced firm that performs background checks is now under investigation for taking “shortcuts” and performing substandard investigations. It so happens that Snowden was the subject of one those investigations.

        Asking the question is not an accusation but simply the need to know.

        Having spent several years with ASA I worked with many contractors and all were vetted extensively. Even so, there were failures back then when investigations were conducted by our own people.

        Vet also…..

  13. Snow Jobs permalink

    99% of the documents are still secret, and will probably stay secret. Perhaps that is because 99% of the documents stolen had nothing to do with domestic surveillance, let alone unlawful domestic surveillance. Releasing the 99% would not fit the civil liberties whistleblower narrative. Along with the revelation that Snowden stayed at the Russian embassy in Hong Kong, it’s really questionable what Snowden was trying to accomplish.

    • kruzenslow permalink

      Sorry, but you are speculating. We don’t have any idea what is in the hands of the FSB. So to state tha 99% will not be revealed is not viable. We have no idea if Snowden is just a idealist or is he really a mole who accomplised one of the greatest operations in the “Great Game”.

      If the FSB has posession of the files and they are encrypted you can bet that their best and brightest are working on cracking it. Assuming Snowden does not cooperate and they are not cracking him.

      I for one having been in that arena back in the 60s and having observed what they can do in the way of operations will assume the worst….

      Never underestimate the Russians. They occasionally do stupid things but overall they are skilled and ruthless in these matters.

      As far as the Civil Liberties issue it may be just smoke and mirrors to cover up a huge loss for NSA.
      Just My Humble Opinion

  14. NOBODY permalink

    Reform? Reform was never intended to come
    from politicians or the white house. Reform
    will come from peoples’ change of online use,
    growing public use of open-source encryption,
    growing use of services such as Tor, a growing
    amount of computers air-gapped, growing use of
    hardcopy backups rather than “the cloud” – and
    add to that, more people bleaching their cookies
    and other web browser cache, surging use of VPNs,
    growing use of proxies. Sudden disconnections,
    later following re-connections, over and over.

    Reform?

    How about the death of RSA and a new generation
    of young privacy-crypto-enthusiasts who start to
    say “fuck the corporate platforms” and change it
    whether legal or not?

    The reform will come from people taking action.

    Here’s what I’d like to know – will “big government”
    follow up reform with their “internet kill switch?”

  15. Tom permalink

    “Inside the Company” was one of the most sophisticated and effective disinformation jobs ever undertaken by the KGB and some of its partners. I’m curious to know if anyone has evidence that Snowden’s documents have been doctored before release by him or his partners.

  16. White House oversight board: NSA “program must be ended.”

    This NSA spying is a truly astounding abuse of U.S. citizens (and European citizens) by their government. “…White House’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, determined that the [NSA] mass surveillance program investigated was not only ineffective–they found it had never stopped even a single imminent terrorist attack–but that it had no basis in law. Specifically, the board concluded, “we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.” And in the conclusion (page 102) of this White House oversight board’s report “The NSA’s bulk records program was initiated more than 4 years before the government sought authorization for it under Section 215 of the Patriot Act…. Because Section 215 does not provide a sound legal basis for the NSA’s bulk telephone records program, we believe the program MUST BE ENDED.” (Capitalization for emphasis is mine.)

    Edward Snowden revealed to an EU parliament committee that spy agencies of European countries were complicit in spying on each other’s citizens and changing laws to make spying easier. ”Snowden’s testimony also ranged over disclosures to come, and the complicity of European spy agencies in snooping on each other’s citizens—and then sharing the data with the NSA, which gets the full package. Countries even modify their privacy laws to make the NSA’s job (and that of their own agencies) easier.” http://reason.com/blog/2014/03/10/edward-snowden-nsa-too-busy-spying-on-am

    Here is the report by the White House’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board PCLOB-Report-on-the-NSA Telephone-Records-Program

    What Snowden did was illegal, but so is the NSA surveillance program on which he blew the whistle, and so was Clapper’s perjury in testimony in Congress. The least illegal among these is Snowden’s whistle blowing. How else would this abuse of 4th Amendment be stopped?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Why the President’s NSA Reforms Weren’t as Sweeping as They Could’ve Been | BobCesca.com | News and Politics Blog and Podcast | We Cover the World
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  7. The Snowden Operation: Assessing the Damage | The XX Committee

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