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Hillary’s Emailgate: Understanding Security Classification

The rising scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton regarding her apparent misuse of unclassified email during her tenure as Secretary of State gets worse for the Presidential hopeful with each passing day. During the week now ending, I’ve explained in writing and in radio and TV appearances how Americans ought to look at this touchy matter.

Few Americans have ever dealt with Top Secret materials and understandably they are left perplexed by this complicated and mysterious subject. This is not helped by the fact that Clinton backers seek to blow off this scandal as “no big deal.” Obfuscation does not change the fact that the placing of highly classified information on an unclassified and unencrypted network is a very serious matter indeed, not to mention very likely a criminal act to boot.

To aid understanding of how security classification works in the real world of the Intelligence Community, I’m giving you a sample intelligence assessment which I will walk you through to illustrate how this plays out every day in Washington, DC.

Everything I’m presenting you is fake — Zendia for decades was used by the National Security Agency as its preferred made-up country in training exercises — but corresponds exactly to how the IC actually writes “finished” intelligence assessments based on multiple information sources, then classifies them.

Such assessments are authored every day by multiple American intelligence agencies and offices, then shared with senior leadership. The Secretary of State is always a top consumer of such intelligence. Moreover, the State Department has its own in-house intelligence analysis shop, termed the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) to meet their department’s need for additional classified assessments and reporting.

What follows is a short intelligence assessment of the kind U.S. Government officials read every single day, made up by me but adhering to the style and substance of what I used to do at work when I was an IC analyst.

TOPSECRET//SI//TK//NOFORN

(S) Economic, Political Problems for Zendia Ahead

(TS//SI) The Zendian Ambassador to Dirtbagistan believes it is increasingly likely that his country will fail to make its next International Monetary Fund (IMF) payment, scheduled for mid-September. This IMF payment of 475 billion Zendian wangos ($8.4 billion) is beyond his government’s ability to pay, Ambassador Abu Travolta explained to a senior member of his country’s Ministry of Finance (believed to be Deputy Finance Minister Abu Nugent) on 12 August. The ambassador further opined that, in the event of this likely default, the government of Prime Minister Barack Dukakis would not last long, politically. For this reason the Zendian government is going to great lengths to prevent word of the impending IMF default from reaching the media, according to Ambassador Travolta.

(TS//SI//TK) This information was supported by Zendian Deputy Foreign Minister Abu Bon Jovi, who last week informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) that budget constraints, which he expected to get significantly worse in mid-September, meant that MFA payrolls may not be met upon “something big” happening then. This is believed to be a reference to a possible default on Zendia’s IMF loan.

(S//NF) According to U.S. Government information obtained from multiple agencies, Ambassador Travolta is a well-connected member of the ruling party and is close to Prime Minister Dukakis. He has a track record of accurate predictions about forthcoming events in his country.

(FOUO) According to media reports, Ambassador Travolta has been experiencing health problems (NFI) which may indicate his willingness to be unusually frank with fellow members of the Zendian ruling party.

(U) This situation will be updated as soon as additional information becomes available.

TOPSECRET//SI//TK//NOFORN

Off the bat, you’ll notice the report’s overall classification, TOPSECRET//SI//TK//NOFORN, in big and bold letters at the top and bottom, which reflects the highest classification levels of anything incorporated in the assessment. Only people cleared to that level — here a very high one — can read this report.

Like any report, this has a title slug reflecting what it’s about. It’s classified S for SECRET: notice that each paragraph has its classification stated in parentheses at the beginning. This is called “portion marking” by the IC.

The first paragraph is classified TOPSECRET, the highest “official” classification in the U.S. Government, while the addition of SI, meaning Special Intelligence, indicates this is very sensitive stuff. SI is a security caveat that falls under the rubric of Sensitive Compartmented Information or SCI. Not everybody cleared for TOPSECRET also has access to SCI, that’s a separate matter and all SCI materials require special handling to protect them from compromise.

Here, SI indicates that the paragraph is based on information from signals intelligence or SIGINT from NSA — in this case an intercepted phone call between two senior Zendian officials. Although the report never states that this is SIGINT, the kind of information provided plus the SI caveat indicate this is based on NSA reporting, as anybody experienced with intelligence would immediately recognize.

The following paragraph is also based on NSA SIGINT, albeit from a different, even more sensitive source: the TK in its classification stands for TALENT KEYHOLE and indicates that information is derived from foreign communications intercepted by an intelligence satellite. This, again, is a conversation between top Zendian officials, so it’s valuable “horse’s mouth” information. Here two senior bureaucrats seem to corroborate each other, which is an important revelation.

The third paragraph has a lower classification, SECRET, is not based on SIGINT, and has the NOFORN caveat, meaning it cannot be shared with non-Americans (a good deal of NSA SIGINT, even at the TS/SI level, is shared with close foreign partners such as the Anglosphere Five Eyes countries). This paragraph is based on local classified assessments — probably from the US Embassy to Zendia as well as the CIA Station there — that are sent back as regular reports to Washington, DC about the political lay of the land in that country.

The last substantive paragraph isn’t classified at all but has the For Official Use Only marking, meaning it cannot be released to the public without official approval. It’s based on media reports, which represent an important source of information for the IC and the State Department. CIA’s Open Source Center is the IC’s hub for translating foreign media in many languages and, pound for pound, represents the best value in the Intelligence Community, in my opinion. Here, unclassified media (termed Open Source Intelligence or OSINT) by some, is used to round out the assessment, and how the analyst has reached a tentative conclusion based on that media is considered to be FOUO. NFI means No Further Information.

The last line is entirely unclassified, as indicated by the U at the beginning, and states simply that more information will be forthcoming on this issue as the analyst gets it.

That last line is the only part of the assessment that is wholly unclassified and, in theory, could be released to the public without a cumbersome approval process: of course, taken alone it says nothing of interest, which perhaps is the point.

The larger point, however, is that, save that last line, absolutely none of the information in this assessment could be released to the public, or placed on any unclassified information system, by anybody, not even a cabinet secretary, without specific approval from outside agencies. The SIGINT, in particular, is highly sensitive and could only be placed in unclassified channels with an explicit NSA (and probably Director of National Intelligence) go-ahead, which is rare.

Even “talking around” such information, especially in written fashion, is unwise and usually represents a serious security breach, not to mention it may be illegal. For example, this is how a top official who read that Zendian intelligence assessment might proceed:

1. “We’re hearing Zendia will probably default on its IMF loan.” (Marginally acceptable because there’s no attribution, no sources and methods are mentioned, though even so it’s really at least FOUO if it’s a cabinet secretary putting it in an unclassified email.)

2. “We’re getting intel that Zendia will probably default on its IMF loan.” (Unacceptable, a security violation, but not classified higher than SECRET due to lack of source attribution.)

3. “NSA says Zendia will default on its IMF loan in September.” (Absolutely unacceptable in any unclassified format, a compromise of TS//SI sources and methods….call the FBI.)

What exactly happened in the case of Hillary Clinton’s classified emails we don’t know yet, but the FBI is now on the case, and I’m sure the Bureau will eventually find out. What happens after that? It’s too soon to tell ….

The Intelligence Community and Hillary Clinton

Today I was on FoxNews to discuss the latest revelations about Hillary Clinton’s rising email problems relating to the compromise of highly classified materials when she was Secretary of State in President Obama’s first term. I emphasize the foreign counterintelligence aspects of this troubling case. Enjoy!

More on Hillary’s Emailgate

Yesterday I chatted with Ed Morrissey over at HotAir about Hillary Clinton’s mounting State Department email scandal (see this backgrounder too). I shared my insights as former NSA counterintelligence officer. I explain some things about classification levels and what happens to people who don’t follow Intelligence Community rules on handling Top Secret information. If you’ve got sixteen minutes free, it’s worth your time. Enjoy!

The Spy Satellite Secrets in Hillary’s Emails

After months of denials and delaying actions, Hillary Clinton has decided to turn over her private email server to the Department of Justice. As this controversy has grown since the spring, Clinton and her campaign operatives have repeatedly denied that she had placed classified information in her personal email while serving as Secretary of State during President Obama’s first term. (“I am confident that I never sent nor received any information that was classified at the time it was sent and received,” she said last month.) Her team also denied that she would ever hand over her server to investigators. Now both those assertions have been overturned.

Hillary Clinton has little choice but to hand over her server to authorities since it’s now appears increasingly likely that someone on her staff violated Federal laws regarding the handling of classified materials. On August 11, after extensive investigation, the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General reported to Congress that it had found several violations of security policy in Clinton’s personal emails.

Most seriously, the Inspector General assessed that Clinton’s emails included information that was highly classified—yet mislabeled as unclassified. Worse, the information in question should have been classified up to the level of “TOP SECRET//SI//TK//NOFORN,” according to the Inspector General’s report.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast

The Rosenbergs and Espionage Denial

More than six decades after they were executed for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg continue to inspire polemics. Their case had ample drama, embellished by the fact that the doomed couple were the only Americans executed for espionage by the United States during the Cold War. That they left behind two orphaned sons made the case poignant.

They were convicted during the Korean War, which took the lives of over 50,000 Americans who died to stem Soviet aggression, which provided an explanation why the government did not seek leniency, especially because the Rosenbergs had assisted the Soviet nuclear weapons program with their espionage. Moreover, it was obvious that Federal prosecutors wanted Ethel’s cooperation — Julius was the Soviets’ big fish and the government’s case against his wife was weaker than against him — but Ethel, a hardline Communist, rejected that, even when she could have saved her own life for her children’s sake.

Although the Rosenbergs had defenders who pleaded that they were innocent, or at least severely misunderstood, most of them fell silent when the National Security Agency twenty years ago declassified its VENONA project, a top secret code-breaking effort that revealed numerous 1940’s secrets of Soviet espionage against the United States. The unveiling of VENONA, one of the great triumphs of American intelligence, also revealed why Federal prosecutors were so confident in their prosecution of especially Julius Rosenberg. VENONA transcripts made clear that Julius, who appeared in the messages under the Soviet covernames LIBERAL and ANTENNA, wasn’t just a Stalinist true-believer but an important agent of the Soviet secret police who gave Moscow every American secret he could get his hands on.

For all but the most determined denialists, that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy was proved conclusively by VENONA — the ace in the hole for the Feds that they possessed in 1953 but could not show to the jury at the Rosenbergs’ trial, because it was so highly classified. Julius was every bit the traitor that the government said he was, and he had betrayed nuclear secrets to Stalin.

Now the case is back in the news, with Michael and David Meeropol, the Rosenberg’s orphaned sons, appealing to President Obama in today’s New York Times to exonerate their mother who, they claim, was unfairly convicted of espionage. Specifically, they want the Obama administration to right what they see as the wrongs of so many decades ago.

“Our mother was not a spy,” the Meeropols flatly state, demanding that President Obama “acknowledge that Ethel Rosenberg was wrongly convicted and executed.” Their case for this is based on the recently released grand jury transcript of David Greenglass, who was the Meeropol’s uncle. Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, was himself a Soviet spy who served almost ten years in Federal prison for betraying atomic secrets to Moscow. One of the most sordid aspects of this sordid case is that Greenglass saved his own skin, and that of his wife, by fingering his own sister.

The newly released grand jury testimony leaves little doubt that Greenglass embellished matters over the decades and his story changed with time (he died last year); he was never an especially reliable witness. On the basis of this the Meeropols protest that their mother was innocent, and to “prove” that they highlight evidence from various sources in a slipshod manner. Although I understand that the Meeropols need to believe that their mother wasn’t a spy for Stalin, the facts to not bear that wish out.

VENONA made very clear what Ethel was up to. I’ve worked with VENONA materials for years, including intercepts never released to the public, and I thereby shut the door on denialism regarding Alger Hiss, another one of Stalin’s spies inside the U.S. government that many on the left simply refused to accept was a traitor, although his guilt was firmly established by VENONA.

Several VENONA messages reveal important facts about Ethel Rosenberg. Number 1657, sent from the KGB’s New York residency to the Center (i.e, HQ) in Moscow on 27 November 1944, is worth citing in detail (for the original see here):

To VIKTOR [i].

Your no. 5356 [a]. Information on LIBERAL’s [ii] wife [iii]. Surname that of her husband, first name ETHEL, 29 years old. Married five years. Finished secondary school. A FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN [ZEMLYaK] [iv] since 1938. Sufficiently well developed politically. Knows about her husband’s work and the role of METR [v] and NIL [vi]. In view of delicate health does not work. Is characterized positively and as a devoted person.

ANTON [xi]

Notes: [a] Not available

Comments:
[i] VIKTOR: Lt. Gen. P.M. Fitin  [head of KGB foreign intelligence].
[ii] LIBERAL: Julius ROSENBERG.
[iii] Ethel ROSENBERG, nee GREENGLASS.
[iv] ZEMLYaK: Member of the Communist Party.
[v] METR: Probably Joel BARR or Alfred SARANT.
[vi] NIL: Unidentified.
. . .
[xi] ANTON: Leonid Romanovich KVASNIKOV [KGB’s New York rezident].

This KGB report establishes that Ethel Rosenberg was a trusted person as far as the Kremlin was concerned, a Communist Party member who was witting of her husband’s secret work for Soviet intelligence, as well as the roles of other agents who were part of Julius’ spy network. Code-phrases such as being “devoted” and “well developed politically” reveal that Ethel was a committed Stalinist in whom the Soviet secret police placed trust.

That Ethel’s role in Soviet espionage went beyond sympathy was revealed in another KGB message from New York to Moscow, sent on 21 September 1944 (Number 1340, it can be seen in full here). This discusses the possible recruitment of a new American agent:

To VIKTOR [i]:

Lately the development of new people [D% has been in pro­gress]. LIBERAL [ii] recommended the wife of his wife’s brother, Ruth GREENGLASS, with a safe flat in view. She is 21 years old, a TOWNSWOMAN [GOROZhANKA] [iii], a GYMNAST [FIZKUL’TORNITsA] (iv) since 1942. She lives on STANTON ISTANTAUN] Street. LIBERAL and his wife recommend her as an intelligent and clever girl.

Comments:

[i] VIKTOR: Lt. Gen. P. M. FITIN.

[ii] LIBERAL: Julius ROSENBERG.

[iii] GOROZhANKA: .American citizen.

[iv] FIZKULITURNITsA: Probably a Member of the Young Communist League.

In other words, Ethel was a such a willing and witting member of the Soviet espionage apparat in mid-1940s America that she was setting up her own sister-in-law as a candidate for recruitment by the KGB. The observation that Ruth Greenglass had a “safe” flat indicates they had clandestine work in mind for her.

Moreover, it’s impossible to believe that Ethel could not have been aware what Julius was up to. As the head of his own KGB agent network for years, Julius was recruiting and running spies for the Soviets, several of them relatives and friends whom Ethel knew well. Additionally, Julius had spy equipment such as cameras provided by the KGB to facilitate his espionage (see VENONA message Number 1600, 14 November 1944, which discusses some of the clandestine tradecraft that Julius used). Ethel was a clever woman and it’s simply impossible to believe that she didn’t notice her husband moving and photographing literally thousands of pages of classified U.S. materials in their not overly large apartment.

Neither is VENONA our only inside source on Ethel’s role in the case. Aleksandr Feklisov, a legendary KGB officer who ran their operations in the United States in the 1940’s, had details to add as well. In the aftermath of the VENONA release, Feklisov stated the Rosenbergs weren’t all that important to Soviet espionage, describing their execution as a “contract murder” by the American government.

That, however, was not how Feklisov described the Rosenbergs in his memoir, published in English in 2001. Although Feklisov makes no effort at being dispassionate — he considers the Rosenbergs to be heroes and the book includes a picture of Feklisov kissing their tombstone (!) — he adds considerably more detail about the matter. Feklisov, who served as the Rosenbergs’ case officer, admitted to more than fifty meetings with Julius, whose betrayal of his own country Feklisov describes in glowing terms. (Here Feklisov’s original Russian-language memoir, published in 1994, is helpful.)

As for Ethel, Feklisov says that he never met her. This does not surprise, as Julius was already such a trusted agent-handler for the KGB that there was no need for Feklisov, who lived in the United States in constant fear of being caught by the FBI, to expose himself to additional danger by meeting with Ethel. Who needed to when you had Julius to handle that? Besides, VENONA messages make clear that Moscow trusted Ethel as well.

Additionally, Feklisov at one point refers to Ethel as a “probationer” (cтажёр in Russian). This word appears regularly in VENONA messages and was 1940’s KGB-speak for agents, that is foreigners who worked wittingly for Soviet intelligence. That closes any debate about how Feklisov viewed Ethel Rosenberg.

I understand the human impulse behind the Meeropols’ desire to have their long-dead mother exonerated. In addition to the pain of losing both parents at a young age, there’s the added horror that Ethel could have saved herself by cooperating — after all, if she wasn’t doing anything wrong, why not talk to the FBI? Especially when your execution is pending. The awful truth is that Ethel Rosenberg, a committed Communist, loved Stalin more than her own children.

Nobody who understands Soviet intelligence and has read the relevant VENONA messages with open eyes has any doubt that Ethel Rosenberg was an agent of the KGB. She was witting regarding a large degree of her husband’s enormous treason, perhaps all of it. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were fanatical Communists in a manner we now associate with jihadists. The cause was their life; it mattered more than anything, even family.

David Greenglass was a traitor and a liar, but the truth is that the U.S. government when it convicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg of espionage needed his testimony as cover. VENONA told the FBI all it needed to know about Julius and Ethel’s secret life of betrayal, but such top secret information could never be discussed in court. Hence the need for first-hand witnesses, sometimes of dubious credibility, wanting to save their own skin.

Greenglass was content to let his sister die to save himself. But that does not make Ethel Rosenberg innocent of espionage on behalf of one of history’s most murderous regimes. She was a spy for Stalin. We can debate whether the Rosenbergs ought to have been executed — I suspect that will be debated until the end of time — but there is no debating that they were guilty of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Ethel was a witting and willing member of that criminal conspiracy.

Today’s Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, successor to the KGB famed foreign intelligence arm, proudly proclaims both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as “greats” who served Moscow. It would be best if the Meeropols accepted that fact and moved on with their lives. There’s no need to bother President Obama, a busy man, with this deception.

[N.B. Although the Soviet secret police was not named the KGB until 1954, having changed its name numerous times since its establishment in 1917, I’ve used the well-known abbreviation for simplicity. Purists can’t always win.]

 

Islamic State Raids in Macedonia

Last night, police and intelligence forces in Macedonia raided multiple locations in the small Balkan country, seeking to root out the Islamic State infrastructure that has established a foothold in recent years.

According to Macedonian press reports, Operation Cell, which had been planned since late September, was executed in several locations in the capital Skopje as well as the provincial cities of Gostivar, Tetovo, Kumanovo and Struga, Specific sites where police conducted searches included Skopje’s Tutunsuz mosque, which known for its radicalism, an internet cafe, and two unnamed NGOs, as well as more than two dozen residences.

Nine suspected Islamic State militants have been arrested, including Rechep Memishi, the imam of the Tutunsuz mosque, who is considered by Macedonian state security to be the group’s ideological ringleader. In all, three dozen arrest warrants were issued; the missing men, twenty-seven in all, are believed to be abroad, fighting with the Islamic State in the Middle East.

path_2393The men in custody range from nineteen to forty-nine years of age and will face criminal charges of aid to terrorism and supporting illegal paramilitary organizations. Among the items confiscated by police include several computers, SIM cards, significant amounts of cash, a gas pistol, and brass knuckles, while an Islamic State flag was seized at the Tutunsuz mosque (left).

Macedonian intelligence assesses that 130 of its citizens, mainly ethnic Albanians, have gone abroad to wage jihad with the Islamic State, of whom sixteen are believed to have been killed.

Operation Cell, which was planned in coordination with multiple partner intelligence services, appears to be an important success in the struggle against terrorism and radicalism in Southeastern Europe. Given the fragile state of interethnic relations in Macedonia, including large-scale still-murky terrorist acts, as well as string-pulling by Putin’s Russia, it’s imperative that Skopje gets a handle on its Islamic State problem. This seems to be a step in the right direction.

UPDATE (1315 EST, 6 AUG): latest reports from Skopje indicate that the NGOs raided last night are Spark of Mercy (Искра на милоста) and Islamic Youth-Saraj (Исламска младина-Сарај), which are suspected radical fronts. Police seized a total of 38 computers, 18 laptops, 18 tablets and 119 phones. The Interior Ministry has stated that those arrested have “some overlap” with the Kumanovo radical group, which is blamed by Skopje for recent terrorist attacks in Macedonia.

The Painful Truth About Snowden

Since the saga of Edward Snowden went public just over two years ago, I’ve had a lot to say in the media about this sensational case. That’s gotten me loads of push-back, not to mention trolling, but my take on the case — particularly that it’s a planned foreign intelligence operation that operates behind the cover of “freedom” and “civil liberties” — has increasingly become accepted by normals.

In the first place, that Snowden shows no sign of leaving Putin’s Russia, not exactly a bastion of liberty, has made all but his most uncritical defenders wonder what’s going on here. The clear damage that Snowden’s vast revelations have done to Western counterterrorism and security likewise has raised doubts about motives. And that’s not been helped by the fact that very few of Snowden’s purloined secrets have to do with NSA domestic operations. The overwhelming majority expose foreign intelligence activities that are considered legitimate and normal by most citizens. It’s hard to see how exposing details of Israel’s killing of senior WMD proliferators in Syria, per the latest Snowden revelation, exactly protects the civil liberties of Americans.

At last, some important questions about the Snowden Operation, which I’ve posed for two years, are being picked up by the mainstream media. Even in Germany, where Snowdenmania has taken root perhaps more than anywhere else, voices are now asking who exactly stands behind The Ed Show.

I’ve previously explained how nobody acquainted with counterintelligence, and particularly with Russian espionage practices, accepts the official story, that Snowden “just happened” to wind up in Moscow in June 2013. While we still don’t know when Snowden’s first contact with Russian intelligence was, that remains the preeminent question. Moreover, if you don’t understand that Snowden’s in bed with Russia’s secret services now, after more than two years in the country — “of course” he is, explained a top KGB general — I can’t fix that kind of stupid.

There remains also the important question of what exactly Putin is getting out of Snowden. At a fundamental level the answer is obvious. The Snowden Operation was designed to inflict maximum pain on the mighty Western intelligence alliance, led by NSA, that has stood as a bulwark of freedom since the Second World War. This it has achieved, one headline at a time, making it the greatest Active Measure in Chekist history.

Yet there’s nothing new about any of this. As I’ve explained since the moment Snowden first went public, this is really no more than the Agee operation sexed up for the Internet age. Phil Agee was a former CIA officer who, disillusioned with the Agency (in part because it washed him out over his alcoholism), volunteered his services to the Cubans and Soviets. In the mid-1970’s, Agee (known to the KGB as PONT) became a worldwide sensation, exposing numerous CIA activities and officers through books and articles authored by the KGB under Agee’s byline. To his death in 2008, an unrepentant Agee lied about his KGB connections and insisted he was a pure-hearted whistleblower, a claim which was accepted uncritically by his hardcore fans. Sound familiar?

But there is one key difference between the cases. While Agee had been a CIA operations officer and gave the KGB lots of information about his secret activities, Snowden is really no more than an IT guy. While he excelled at stealing top secret files, it’s evident to the initiated that his actual understanding of the SIGINT system is weak.

Moreover, it’s exceptionally unlikely that Snowden has told the Russians much about NSA and its partners that they didn’t know already, in some form. At the beginning of 2012, Canadian authorities, acting on a tip from the FBI, arrested a naval officer named Jeffrey Delisle, one of the most damaging (but least interesting) traitors in recent history. Motivated by self-loathing and greed, for five years until his arrest Delisle passed volumes of classified information from his office, an intelligence shop in Halifax, to GRU, Russian military intelligence. For the Western SIGINT system especially, this was a devastating compromise. As I explained long before the Snowden case broke:

In the SIGINT realm, what Delisle wrought appears to have terrible consequences, beyond the spook world. Thanks to his access to STONEGHOST and related databases where Anglosphere countries share intelligence seamlessly, the damage from this case is probably felt more severely in Washington and London than in Ottawa. Under the so-called Five Eyes system, which dates to the Second World War, the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and (mostly) New Zealand, cover the globe with SIGINT, and share most of the take with each other. Hence, as Delisle explained about what he betrayed, “It was never really Canadian stuff,” he told police, later adding, “There was American stuff, there was some British stuff, Australian stuff – it was everybody’s stuff.” Last week, after Delisle accepted a plea agreement admitting his guilt, the U.S. ambassador in Ottawa, David Jacobson, characterized the case as the loss of “a lot of highly classified material,” adding with consummate diplomatic tact, “That is obviously not good.”

It can be safely assumed that Delisle gave GRU the store on what Anglosphere SIGINT agencies knew abut Russia, which is always a lot – politics, military, economics. He appears to have betrayed a great deal of Canadian insider information too. True to form, GRU was most interested in – Delisle said they were “fixated on” – counterespionage data, i.e. finding Western spies in Russia, but thankfully that, at least, was something the junior officer could not access from his desk in Halifax.

GRU had it all before Snowden gave it to them. Ed’s vast haul of well over a million classified documents undoubtedly added details — as well as the ability to attack NSA and its partners through “helpful” Western media outlets with lots of purloined PowerPoints about SIGINT activities — but nobody acquainted with GRU and SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, will fail to grasp how damaging the Delisle case was to Western intelligence long before Snowden got on that Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong to Moscow.

While the unprecedented propaganda value of Snowden to Russian intelligence cannot be doubted, any seasoned counterintelligencer will have follow-on questions. As a former NSA counterintelligence officer myself, I can share with you the depressing reality that, during the Cold War, the NSA-led Western SIGINT alliance was never not penetrated, somewhere, by Soviet spies. And that’s counting only the moles we know of.

The importance of NSA to Soviet espionage would be difficult to overstate. They called it OMEGA, and it was the KGB’s highest priority foreign intelligence target on earth. Why isn’t difficult to grasp, as since its founding in 1952, NSA has been the source of the lion’s share of foreign intelligence inside the U.S. Government, while also protecting sensitive American communications. When you penetrate NSA, you get the whole thing. An all-access pass to Top Secret America. Moreover, thanks to lots of intelligence sharing among Anglosphere SIGINT agencies, a penetration anywhere across the system could offer a great deal of access to the closest-held secrets of five states, two of which are nuclear powers.

Hence it’s no surprise that throughout the Cold War the KGB and GRU tried hard to recruit spies inside NSA and its partners, worldwide. SIGINT analysts, linguists, mathematicians, code-makers and code clerks — military, civilian, contractor — were all top-priority targets for Soviet spies. Around the globe, KGB and GRU case officers hung out at bars and clubs where NSA personnel collected, hoping for a lonely, drunk, and perhaps horny young man they could “befriend.” They had more success than most Americans perhaps want to know. The worst penetration of the SIGINT system that we know of, William Weisband, came at the beginning of the Cold War, but that damaging traitor had many successors.

Protecting moles has always been an important task for Kremlin spies. Unlike Western espionage, Moscow’s spymasters take a long view, particularly regarding high-priority penetrations, and will do things that no Western spy service would countenance to protect them from exposure. In particular, the Russians have a long (and often successful) history of compromising and exposing less important assets to protect “golden sources.” I’m personally aware of at least three cases in recent memory where Russian spies intentionally let us find their agents, with the aim of leading the path away from more valued sources.

This was a venerable Cold War practice. In the 1960’s the U.S. Intelligence Community became engaged in a vast mole-hunt thanks to the defection of Yuri Nosenko, a KGB officer, shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The debate over Nosenko’s bona fides grew extended and nasty, tearing a fissure through CIA and IC counterintelligence that lingered for years. To his defenders, Nosenko was that rarest of creatures, an actual KGB officer with important knowledge (including, with impeccable timing, information about Lee Harvey Oswald’s stay in the Soviet Union), who crossed to our side. To his detractors, Nosenko’s saga was too convenient by half.

This debate continues more than a half-century after it commenced. Down to his death in 2008, Nosenko was heralded as a hero by the CIA, which in 1969 officially assessed that Nosenko was a legitimate defector, although doubters still remain. Not long before his own death, Pete Bagley, Nosenko’s first CIA case officer, published a definitive account of the doubters’ case against Nosenko. This was the case Bagley made against Nosenko in the 1960s, which harmed his career for being bureaucratically “off-message” in an Agency that very much wanted its star Soviet defector to be real, seasoned with decades of pondering and additional research.

What Nosenko was really up to will not be determined beyond doubt until outsiders get access to the full KGB archives, which is impossible as long as Putin rules in the Kremlin. That said, Bagley made a thoroughly persuasive case that, at a minimum, Nosenko was not who he claimed to be. The holes in Nosenko’s account of his KGB career and defection are big enough to drive trucks through. While Nosenko was a KGB officer, Bagley showed convincingly that he was not the elite foreign intelligence official that he posed as to the Americans.

Bagley and others for decades insisted that Nosenko was a plant, dispatched westward as a fake defector to throw American counterintelligence off the trail of genuine Soviet moles inside the Intelligence Community. This notion, a complex form of long-term offensive counterintelligence married to strategic deception, sounds fanciful to most Western spies but is in fact quite normal in Moscow. Moreover, Bagley offered evidence pointing to deeply damaging Soviet penetrations of the IC. particularly of the cryptologic system, going back to the 1950’s, that Nosenko’s defection sought to protect.

These moles were never uncovered but NSA counterintelligence long agreed that they probably existed. This deception extends beyond Nosenko, right into the mysterious case of Aleksei Kulak, known as FEDORA to the FBI, who was the Bureau’s “golden source” inside the KGB. Kulak served in New York with the Soviet mission to the United Nations from 1961 to 1967, then again from 1971 to 1977. Ostensibly a science attaché, Kulak was really a KGB case officer. An odd duck for a Chekist, Kulak was an actual scientist, holding a Ph.D. in chemistry, and was a hero of the Second World War, having received the highest Soviet valor decoration, the Hero of the USSR, for frontline service.

In the spring of 1962, a few months after his arrival in New York, Kulak volunteered his services to the FBI. Thus began an espionage saga that would continue, on and off, for the next fifteen years and, like Nosenko, would divide the American counterintelligence club. The FBI immediately understood the value of FEDORA. Behind his back they called him “Fatso” but the Bureau saw that Kulak was who he said he was and that he knew a great deal about KGB operations inside the United States.

There were doubters from the start, and to make a complex story brief, the FBI more or less accepted FEDORA’s bona fides while CIA mostly didn’t (though there were dissenters from orthodoxy in both agencies). Kulak spilled the beans about lots of high-value cases, but he seldom gave away enough information — exact names, for instance — to easily uncover Soviet moles. Despite the KGB’s normally rigid compartmentization, which meant that no case officer usually knew much beyond his own purview, Kulak knew some details of many operations he was not involved with. This was due to the fact that he was drinking buddies with the longtime KGB rezident (i.e. station chief) in New York: they had served together during the war and liked to get sloshed, reminisce, and talk spy cases.

One of Kulak’s most sensational revelations was of a KGB mole inside the FBI. The thought, heresy to Hoover’s Bureau, set off a massive hunt for the traitor known as “UNSUB Dick” that lingered through the 1960’s and never officially caught the mole. This was a traumatic experience for the FBI that it kept out of public view for decades. Years later, UNSUB Dick was identified, with a high degree of confidence, but he had left the Bureau years before and the FBI had no stomach for arresting him with all the awkward questions that would follow.

Had Kulak helped — or hurt — the FBI with his tantalizing but incomplete revelations? There’s no doubt that his telling the Bureau a little bit about UNSUB Dick, but not too much, set the Bureau chasing his own tail for years without resolution. Was Kulak our friend? enemy? perhaps frenemy? This sort of enduring counterintelligence mystery is normal if you want to play against the Russians, where initiation into the vaunted Wilderness of Mirrors is a hard school.

Kulak played this game more than once, including against NSA. Just as with UNSUB Dick, he offered a bit of information — fuzzy details of career and life — about a well-placed KGB mole inside NSA. This explosive revelation set NSA counterintelligence on a years-long hunt for the traitor which never definitely uncovered him. Just as with UNSUB Dick, the mole was eventually uncovered, with a high degree of confidence, years after he left Fort Meade, when nobody wanted to deal with what was then old news.

Was Kulak a bona fide source who helped the Americans where he could? Or was he a plant whose job was sending U.S. counterintelligence down false (or just as bad, not very helpful) avenues of mole-hunting inquiry? Or was he bona fide in part while fake also in part, i.e. a classic Chekist disinformation operation? Russians, unlike Western spy agencies, are perfectly happy to compromise a great deal of legitimate intelligence information in the service of dezinformatsiya, and none could deny that the lion’s share of what Kulak told the FBI did in fact check out.

Having examined a lot of Kulak’s information with a fine-toothed comb when I was working CI, my own view is that Kulak was a controlled KGB source, designed to disseminate disinformation that would confuse the Americans while protecting real moles, but he was also an alcoholic who overshared frequently. Debriefs with FEDORA usually involved a bottle of good stuff that the Chekist chugged down solo while Bureau handlers watched in amazement, taking notes furiously.

What does this entertaining Cold War mystery — how Kulak’s never gotten his own movie bewilders me — have to do with Edward Snowden? Kulak died in 1983, the year Snowden was born. Yet they may be connected all the same, albeit only in spirit.

Chekist espionage operations have remained remarkably constant over the decades. Why change what already works? Under Putin, a onetime KGB counterintelligencer, Russian espionage activities against the West, especially the United States, have grown highly aggressive while adhering to proven Chekist tactics and techniques.

To anyone versed in counterespionage, the 2010 roll-up of the Russian Illegals Network offered tantalizing clues. This major event was treated as a comic-opera affair by most Western media, thanks to the star role of the redheaded Illegal Anna Chapman — just as Moscow wanted. In reality, that network was engaged in a wide range of nefarious activities, including the handling of deep-cover Russian agents, that set off big-time counterintelligence alarm bells.

The bad news was delivered by Bill Gertz, veteran intelligence reporter, who nearly five years ago told of a major mole-hunt inside NSA spurred by the Illegals’ roll-up:

NSA counterintelligence officials suspect that members of the illegals network were used by Russia’s SVR spy agency to communicate with one or more agents inside the agency, which conducts electronic intelligence gathering and code-breaking.

“They are looking for one or more Russian spies that NSA is convinced reside at Fort Meade and possibly other DoD intel offices, like DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency],” the former official said. “NSA is convinced that at least one is at NSA.”

They were not looking for Edward Snowden, who in 2010 had only recently begun work on an NSA contract — but in Japan, thousands of miles from Agency headquarters at Fort Meade. Since there have been no follow-up reports on the Russian mole, or moles, at Fort Meade, we are left to assume that they remain unidentified by NSA counterintelligence.

Here Snowden has doubtless been a big help. Since he went public two years ago, NSA has been engaged in the biggest damage assessment in all intelligence history. Trying to determine exactly what Snowden stole, as well as who may have helped him in his betrayal, has consumed the full resources of Agency counterintelligence, and will for years to come. Perhaps this is why the real Russian moles have yet to be uncovered.

If this notion — that Moscow would sacrifice Snowden to protect their actual moles — strikes you as fanciful you’re not well acquainted with Chekists and how they roll, and have rolled for nearly a century now. Welcome to the Wilderness of Mirrors.

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