Skip to content

The Painful Truth About Snowden

July 19, 2015

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.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: