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The Snowden Operation Falls Apart

May 30, 2014

Edward Snowden had his Big Interview on NBC this week, and it was something of a pace-setter for poor TV journalism, since Brian Williams (who was previously denounced by Glenn Greenwald for being a servile boot-licker of the surveillance state), decided to soft-ball the questions and not follow up many weird, disingenuous statements by Ed. His almost-year in Russia under FSB care has not promoted clear thinking, while Ed’s body language indicated serious deception to the trained eye. NSA’s IT contractor on permanent vacation in Russia gave his usual platitudes about how he’s really a patriot and “had” to steal all those classified IC and DoD documents. He’s almost thirty-one years old but apparently he had no agency in any of this. We’ve heard it all before.

But The Narrative has begun to fall apart in a manner not even the MSM can avoid noticing (though the failure of most journalists to pursue certain obvious angles in the Snowden story ranks as one of the biggest fails in recent American journalism), and this week NSA released Ed’s sole communication with the Agency about his alleged whistleblowing. Recall that Ed has repeatedly claimed that he made numerous complaints about alleged NSA illegalities up the chain of command, verbally and in emails. What has come to light is a single, unclassified (FOUO) automated email question that Ed submitted to the Agency’s Office of General Counsel in April 2013 – months after he began stealing TOP SECRET documents and conspiring with Greenwald and others – about a training matter and it’s a pretty dumb question, frankly, that falls well short of any normal definition of whistleblowing.

We are expected to believe that Ed was clever enough to steal uncounted classified NSA documents, the biggest such haul in all history, but did not remember to save those few, critical emails that would establish that he really is a whistleblower, that he sought remedy through proper channels before he “went rogue.” Be aware that every NSA and IC person I know keeps a file containing hardcopies of all important (meaning Cover Your Ass or CYA) emails; I learned this in my first week on the job, and that file was literally the last thing I burn-bagged when I left Fort Meade for the last time. But Ed, you see, is different. At this point, it’s simple: he needs to cough up those emails – which NSA says do not exist – and provide the names of the supervisors he complained to, or pipe down.

Last night I appeared on MSNBC to address some of these issues. It was not a level playing field, since host Ari Melber is known to be quite pro-Snowden (and it showed) and the other guest was from the ACLU, i.e. Ed’s lawyers. The clip is here if you wish to see it. I want to highlight the egregious lie told by the ACLU representative, namely that NSA cannot find any evidence of damage done by the Snowden Operation. This is so obviously a lie, as is understood by those who have followed this story in even a cursory fashion, that it’s hard to believe even an ACLU lawyer would say this on national television. In truth, the damage to the security of the U.S. and its Allies caused by the Snowden Operation, which constitutes the biggest leak in the history of intelligence, is staggering, as even highly redacted DoD and IC documents have demonstrated.

Our ACLU friend also indicated that it would be really nice if people, you know, just stopped spying on each other. That would be nice, but it’s not going to happen. Spying is called the Second Oldest Profession for a reason, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Espionage is combated with counterintelligence, not by wishful thinking and lawyerly happytalk. Anybody who thinks Moscow and Beijing will comply with international understandings to limit espionage needs to keep it down while the adults are talking. Here on Planet Earth, everybody spies, even the nicest and most democratic countries. Even Luxembourg – yes, Luxembourg – has an intelligence service, and it, too, has been caught up in scandals, recently.

We need to grow up about espionage and have a real, adult debate about it. Snowden, his retinue, and his defenders, approach the matter like petulant children who hate that the world does not operate the way they fantasize it does. Thanks to this, and their continuing baldfaced lies interspersed with ugly smears of their opponents, they have no place in the grown-up discussion that free societies ought to be having about issues of intelligence and privacy.

35 Comments
  1. Jason permalink

    Reblogged this on What? and commented:
    “We need to grow up about espionage and have a real, adult debate about it. “

  2. I’m planning to re-blog this one ASAP.

    I’m sick of hearing about “our poor little Edward” from people who haven’t got the good sense God gave a %$#@-ant.

  3. Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Let’s stop fooling ourselves about Snowden : one of the most successful document thieves in written history !

  4. Mike Douglas permalink

    So let me get this straight.

    A government agency that has been exposed as spying on pretty much everyone, everywhere and compromising the trust of global communications, harvesting pretty much everything , everywhere into a megatron bunker in Utah where it is actively cracking encrypted data finally responds about the communications that Snowden made and releases something that discredits him. And we think this single email is all there is?

    This same government agency whose leadership lied to Congress about who they spied on and to what extent, yet still enjoy the benefit of the doubt of so many people. Yet fail to demonstrate how any of this constitutional violations have prevented terror attacks.

    What is so deeply regrettable about all this is Ed – however he acquired the documents – has released them, he could have sold them and he didn’t. The contents of those documents would – in any correctly functioning democracy have people up in arms demanding and debating and agitating for real change. None of this is happening.

    Instead we play into the hands of the State machinery and join in the shooting of the messenger and not focus on the message.

    • You have America confused with Russia, where Ed lives now.

      • trespasser permalink

        Nowadays too many people confuse USA with RF, You guys have to do something about it already! Kind regards.

  5. Dizzy Csango permalink

    Umm, aren’t you ignoring a significant part of the story by focusing on foreign intelligence gathering only? It wasn’t foreign espionage that inflamed the public opinion, and few grown-ups complained about things like tapping Chancellor Merkel’s phones – these are perfectly reasonable actions and the targets are fully valid, current alliances notwithstanding.

    What many people were outraged about was wholesale data collection on everybody, untargeted and without reasonable suspicion. There are explicit cluses in law banning US intelligence agencies from spying on US citizens; these were disregarded and/or circumvented (by “trading favors” with allied agencies or simply obtaining data from commercial entities). Data collected by intelligence services was then used for “plain” criminal investigations within the US, despite very clear legal prohibitions.

    Do you really not see any problem with that?…

    • Metadata is not “wholesale data collection” – that implies ACTUAL SIGINT collection. Read up before commenting.

      • Dizzy Csango permalink

        With all respect, I have. Actually, I’ve been working with IT system and network security for 10+ years.

        The data-metadata distinction is technical in nature and not really relevant here. I believe it was introduced by the government side to obfuscate the matter only. Actually, metadata is data of certain kind. Think counter-HumInt to see why information on who contacted whom in what sequence with external events has great value and can reveal a lot even without the actual communication content. And it was admitted that the NSA is collecting such data indiscriminately.

        It was also revealed that NSA-provided data was used by FBI in typical criminal cases (and the origins of the data was misreported in court). Do you really find nothing wrong with the situation that an intelligence agency collects data for domestic police to use in criminal cases?

      • Methinks you have misunderstood the NSA-FBI relationship. Also, that you think there’s no real distinction between metadata and “full take” collection indicates that you don’t have a good grasp of SIGINT and how it is used analytically and operationally, at least by NSA and its close allies.

  6. Ben Gleck permalink

    I don’t think the controversial issue is that the United States has an intelligence service or even that can under some circumstances be used on Americans.
    I believe the issue is can this be used against all Americans all the time in the absence of a search warrant.
    A bunch of long haired wierdos a long time ago decided to limit the powers of search and seizure used by the government, because they were a bunch of stupid liberal hippies probably hopped up on jazz cigarettes, and watching everyone at all times, deeming every telephone call made in the United States “relevant” to a terrorism investigation is ridiculous on its face. Regardless of how stupid and liberal the Founders were, the law is the law. And that doesn’t even get in to the notion that the military should never be used against Americans, and the NSA is the military.
    If all this monitoring and surveillance of every American isn’t about terrorism – and it isn’t – then what is it for?
    Could it be that the United States is under severe economic and social strain, so for the elites to preserve their power they have to create a climate of fear that like God almighty, the NSA is always watching, that any impure thought you may have will be betrayed and will go down on your permanent record, and that one day you’ll be dragged to room 101?
    Or no, maybe my grandma’s call to my aunt is a hotbed of terrorist relevance. Or something.

    • You have packed an astonishing amount of incoherence into a somewhat brief comment: I’m impressed. When you come back to Planet Earth, read up on what NSA actually does. You can get a good start on this very blog. Good luck!

  7. I don’t agree with M. Douglas, about democracy and how we should be up in arms because the IC does what they do and we want them to do, but I don’t think he’s confused about the role of the NSA globally. Let’s get real: As you have pointed out many times here, espionage is a real threat to America, and counter-intelligence is the answer. Ditto for every country, even Luxembourg. I agree.

    So it’s not really a safe assumption that other countries are duped by the NSA, in other words that the NSA is keeping a big secret regarding spying on everyone. Everyone knows we spy on them. The only people who didn’t seem to know were the American people, along with the general populations of other countries. Now that they know, there’s a reaction to this. Snowden or Joe Blow, it was going to come out sooner or later in the modern telecommunications world we live in. Despite efforts of Herculean proportions by the IC to suppress this information, it’s come out anyway.

    So why the public hanging of Snowden by the IC, yourself included in this group, and the Washington talking heads at the State Department? Well, it’s simply embarrassing to get caught is all. Damn. Inconvenient. The reason isn’t that the other side now has all kinds of new intel. The reason is that the Great Game is exposed to the population at large, half-stoned as they may be. The real deal is now apparent. No one really gives a damn that the NSA is spying on the Russians, Chinese, and everyone else in the world. Of course they are and I’m glad about it. The Chinese and Russians are spying on us as well. Like the time I installed a Sony monitor on a clients computer and suddenly internet traffic arrived from/via Shanghai. Probably from Unit Number whatever it is the FBI is onto.

    But now it’s gone a step further and we’re included, the American people, fighters for freedom around the globe, saviors of the Century. Why spy on me? Because follow the money, mister. And this is where the IC community has it’s head in the sand. What side is the NSA’s bread buttered on? Who do you work for? Me the guy in the street? I used to think so, now you’ll have to convince me because you’ve got my mail. And phone calls, bank info, computer browsing habits, credit card data, mortgage files, etc. ad infinitum. For my own protection I assume. So I’ll be safe I assume as well, these being the two retarded messages the LE community still uses to convince people when they’re being screwed that they are not in fact being screwed but helped instead. When I’m the enemy as an American patriot, something has been exposed and is clearly wrong. Don’t take it personally as a failure of the IC, it’s not. It’s a failure of all of us to get the real picture on what our government is doing and why and where.

    We now have more of that picture, another inconvenient truth. Snowden’s an operative for the FSB? So what?. That changes nothing in the grand scheme. It’s also just as plausible that he’s a plant by the IC to embarrass the Russians, which backfired like a few other schemes in recent months regarding the Russians under our current administration. Given the impending realities of the Petrodollar and the ham-handed antics of the US/EU politicians in regards Ukraine, that’s not a big stretch.

    For your service, my thanks and well wishes.

    • Thank you for your comments; Snowden’s relationship with Russian intelligence, whatever exactly it is, is of critical importance to assessing the long-term impact of this case.

  8. Dan permalink

    John, after following this saga for a year you seem to be the most knowledgeable person and one of the few with their heads screwed on straight. Just wondering about the DIA report that was heavily redacted (12 of 39 pages released). Not sure if you’re allowed to expand on anything due to classification status, but in the Executive Summary (p. 3), it says the following:

    “The IRTF-2 assesses with high confidence that the information compromise by a former NSA contractor…(information redacted)…and will have a GRAVE impact on U,S, national defense”

    I’m specifically focusing on the words “grave impact.” I’m not that knowledgeable on IC matters but I’m under the impression that those words are not used very often. Are you allowed to briefly mention other situations where those two words were used in regards to intel breaches? Also, is it possible that information regarding the nuclear postures of the US/NATO, Russia, China, etc. are part of the stolen cache of documents (you might not be able to say)

    • I can’t say much here, but suffice it to say that words like “GRAVE impact” in an espionage damage assessment indicate quite some severity.

  9. “Anybody who thinks Moscow and Beijing will comply with international understandings to limit espionage needs to keep it down while the adults are talking” – best line on the internet this year. :)

  10. Don’t disagree with anything here – and I’m a ‘EuroSocialist’. Wrote bout how damaging the Snowdenistas libertarian anti-government crusade should be seen to our side of politics last August. And how we should be serious about intelligence and threats, that is what we would do and how we would run things instead of empty wailing and sloganeering.

    Keep up the good work. I’m sure you know this anyway but you have ‘friends’ in surprising places, I’ve seen many with my sortof politics over here not buying into the fashionable.

    One niggle, which you might enjoy! The ‘oldest profession’ is actually making knives and axe handles (I guess spying could still be second but I’d guess it’s really basket weaving or something …). Check it out in the great Brit show QI > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJpC7MKQIxI

  11. John Doe permalink

    @MikeDouglas if we are shooting the messenger, it is because HE chooses to (rather narcissistically) put the focus on himself, his plight, and not the message.

    There are reforms that should be made, there are valid points in the opposition to some of these activities, and there are rather pragmatic realities that need to be accepted about what we need to continue to do, not only for NatSec from a defense against “Terrorism” perspective, but also economic security, amongst other pressing matters.

    If “Ed” wanted us to actually be debating the content of his (some quite treasonously acquired) trove of data, then he should have left anonymously and discreetly. It could have meant death for him very possibly or at least being spirited away, but the discussion and debate would have been entirely about the “message” instead of fluctuating between astonishment about the documents and then a focus on Mr. Snowden as he jumps into the limelight, sometimes simply to make such humble, patriotic, and constructive statements as “I already won.” (which obviously doesn’t carry either an adversarial or egotistical tone)

    I cannot say wether or not he made further contact, and it would definitely be in the interest of the agencies involved to suppress that, but if any trail of it exists at this point, a further cover-up would be very risky under such scrutiny. Even so, the fact remains that a Whistleblower is someone who comes across something in good faith and the course of their duties and raises the alarm (first internally, then to the press if necessary). A spy, defector, or traitor (or any other vulgarity that describes someone who intentionally subverts their employer) is a phrase reserved for someone who goes to painstaking lengths to /steal/ documents not encountered within his access during the course of his duties, and the flees to the refuge of foreign countries which do not whatsoever enshrine the types of freedoms of which he speaks so casually. It might also be worth telling that his ostensible “goal” of ending internal surveillance is marred by the fact that a good portion of what was released did not relate to internal, but rather foreign surveillance–something that the author of this post pointed out can never be wished away.

    In principle, whistleblowers should be protected, and we need to take a hard look at the laws and norms in place and ensure that it happens. By the same token, however, those guilty of treason should be treated with equally poignant harshness to the auspices we afford those who actually intend to help the people of the United States.

    Just my opinion.

  12. Here’s my take on your debate with the ACLU — I wish we could convert the debate from “How is Snowden harming American security” — which we know to be true but which obviously NSA can’t state without painting a bigger target on their already lashed back — to a debate forcing the Snowdenistas to say, “How is the NSA actually harming individual Americans.” Because that’s where their argument is weak and their cases non-existent.

    http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state/2014/05/hard-rain-snowdens-damage-to-america-and-the-west-and-his-help-to-russia-china-and-allies.html

    I also think a rigorous year-long analysis of every Snowden leak and every world event at the same time and how it works to Russia’s advantage would help make this come into focus better. I started with a few obvious ones — Snowden leaks timed with Russian operations in Crimea and Germany.

  13. Reblogged this on MartySalo's Blog and commented:
    OK, as I understand things, the telco carriers will be required to provide the meta-data when called upon by court orders. I probably don’t have too much of a problem with that. I enjoyed reading @20committe’s post about Ed’s lying lies. The ACLU guy in the clip on MSNBC’s misuse of Intelligence Committees, while he probably should have referred to the Intelligence Community, was interesting, but sadly likely was intentional. The committees are charged with oversight, not micromanagement.

  14. Michelle Fedorova permalink

    Came here to get your full opinion after seeing your recent “discussion” on The Last Word, discussion being a misnomer considering Ari would barely let you get a word in edgewise. I was extremely surprised to find that someone had been doing such a detailed analysis of the Snowden situation, and I must say I’m impressed. You highlight many of the reasons my outlook on him have changed. I openly admit I gave him the benefit of the doubt at first, even putting my own suspicions about his intentions aside when he was granted asylum in Russia. I guess it was his sheer ineptitude.
    However, I felt my suspicions were justified when I started following his story in the Russian press. I’m fluent in Russian (Former USAF Cryptologic Linguist) and have made several trips to Moscow. So when RIA Novosti released several pictures of him over a series of weeks, I immediately noticed in nearly all of them he was no more than 3-400 meters from The Aquarium. I hate to make someone guilty by association, but a consistent presence in that area for a reason other than cooperation with SVR, FSB, etc. (Be it openly or coerced) eludes me.

    • Thanks for your feedback. So you noticed where Eddie’s hanging out, I see. Tough to explain that away, IMO.

  15. One can have problems with metadata collection and the information it can yield — e.g., the “pen register” legal precedent relies on a factset and available technology that’s not on-point — and recognize that Snowden is a traitor.

  16. Reblogged this on Public Secrets and commented:
    20 Committee asks a damned fine question: If Snowden really is a “whistleblower,” why doesn’t he produce the letters of complaint to superiors he surely has? If he’s telling the truth, that is.

  17. Not George Sabra permalink

    To the casual viewer who hasn’t followed the Snowden case closely, your MSNBC appearance did not substantiate what the damage was. Reading your other posts about Snowden is clarifying that for me.

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