A new book looks at the damage the fugitive American whistleblower and his Snowdenistas are doing to Western interests
By Edward Lucas 8:27PM GMT 24 Jan 2014
Edward Snowden is, in the eyes of many, a secular saint. The fugitive NSA contractor has sacrificed his career and risked his freedom to expose systematic wrongdoing by Western intelligence agencies: America and Britain spy on other Western countries; they hoover up and store vast quantities of information about domestic emails and phone calls; they use secret court orders to force cooperation, and they can bug almost any international communication.
After his daring heist of secrets from America’s National Security Agency, the 30-year-old has fled to a secret hiding place where he awaits deserved vindication. It is the stuff of spy movies – played out in real life.
I disagree. My new book, The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster, depicts him as at best a “useful idiot”, whose actions serve our enemies. The theft and publication of secret documents is not a heroic campaign but reckless self-indulgence with disastrous consequences.
For all the media hype in The Guardian, the BBC and elsewhere, Snowden’s published material does not prove systematic, sinister wrongdoing or abuse by the NSA or its British counterpart, GCHQ.
The typical revelation consists of Powerpoint slides showing how the agency bugs, snoops, and searches the vast warehouses of information it collects. But the revelations come devoid of context. Much is ambiguous and out-of-date. The story is told without elementary editorial scrutiny or fact-checking.
The Snowdenistas – as I call his supporters – use this largely underwhelming material as proof of systematic abuse by out-of-control spy services. Did anyone really think that the hackers and code-crackers in Cheltenham (home to GCHQ) or in Fort Meade, Maryland (headquarters of the NSA) spent all day playing Sudoku? Their capabilities are indeed colossal. So they should be, given the taxpayers’ money they consume.
Spy agencies engage in espionage, an inherently disreputable trade: it involves stealing secrets. When details leak, they look shocking. But the hypocrisy of the Snowdenistas is as jarring as their naivety.
Our enemies – notably Russia and China – are spying on us. So too are our allies. France runs a mighty industrial espionage service for the benefit of its big companies. Germany has an excellent signals intelligence agency, the Kommando Strategische Aufklärung. Germany’s spies were recently caught spying on their Nato ally, Estonia, using an official who was also spying for the Russians.
Far from denigrating American intelligence, we should applaud it. It helps catch terrorists, gangsters and spies. Moreover, its oversight and scrutiny is the toughest in the world. America has taken the most elusive and lawless part of government and crammed it into a system of legislative and judicial control.
America is also part of the world’s only successful no-spy agreement, with its close allies – notably Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A list of countries that would trust Germany or France not to spy on them would be rather shorter.
Snowden’s published revelations include material that has nothing to do with his purported worries about personal privacy. They reveal how countries like Norway and Sweden spy on Russia. Why is it in the public interest to reveal how democracies spy on dictatorships? The Snowdenistas’ outrage is based on the fact that this spying takes place in cooperation with the NSA, the fount of all evil.
Other disclosures are similarly hard to justify. Why is it in the public interest to reveal how the NSA intercepts emails, phone calls and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan, or to show that the agency is scrutinising the security of that country’s nuclear weapons? Snowden even revealed details of the NSA hacking computers and mobile phones in China and Hong Kong. The result is to cast a distorting and damaging light on agencies’ work. The harm is catastrophic.
In the spy world, the damage-control involved when even a handful of secret documents is leaked is colossal. When the breach involves tens of thousands, it is paralysing.
Our agencies have to assume that the material is either already in Moscow and Beijing, or will get there eventually. Many operations must be shut down or started anew: a serious spy service does not put lives at risk on the assumption that the other side will not exploit our blunders.
It is fatuous for Snowden’s allies to say that they are keeping the stolen material safe: they lack the knowledge and skills to do so. With equal fatuity, they assert that they redacted the published material in order not to breach security. How can they know what will be damaging or harmless?
As I argue in the book, the damage done by Snowden’s revelations neatly and suspiciously fits the interests of one country: Russia. As the dissident journalist Masha Gessen has observed: “The Russian propaganda machine has not gotten this much mileage out of a US citizen since Angela Davis’s murder trial in 1971.”
The sensationalist, misleading interpretation of the stolen documents has weakened America’s relations with Europe and other allies; it has harmed security relationships between those allies, particularly in Europe; it has corroded public trust in Western security and intelligence services; it has undermined the West’s standing in the eyes of the world; and it has paralysed our intelligence agencies.
These shifts will change our world for the worse. The Atlantic Alliance was already in a parlous state before the Snowden revelations. Now anti-Americanism in Germany and other European countries is ablaze.
Yet an accelerated American withdrawal from Europe would benefit only Russia. The Russian-Chinese campaign to wrest control of the internet from its American founding fathers, and hand it over to national governments (meaning more censorship and control) has gained momentum.
Western protestations of concern for online freedom and privacy ring hollow. The reputation of the biggest Western internet and technology firms has taken a pounding for their supposed complicity in espionage. Their rivals in Russia and China and elsewhere are gleeful. The Snowdenistas seem oblivious to the idea that we in the West have enemies and competitors.
Instead, the great grievance of the Snowden camp is what they see as the arbitrary power of the NSA and GCHQ. Who gave these agencies the power to bug and snoop? The real answer to that is simple: the elected governments and leaders of those countries, the judges and lawmakers charged with supervising the intelligence services, and the directors of those agencies in the exercise of their lawful powers.
The question deserves to be posed in the other direction. What gives the Snowdenistas and their media allies the right to leak our most closely guarded and expensive secrets?
To be fair, the recklessness, narcissism, and self-righteousness of the Snowden camp do not invalidate all their aims. A debate on the collection and warehousing of meta-data (details, for example, about the location, duration, direction of a phone call, but not its content) was overdue. Collected and scrutinised, meta-data can breach privacy: if you know who called a suicide-prevention helpline, from where and when, the content matters less than the circumstances.
The revelations have also shown that intelligence agencies make mistakes, that they operate up to the limits of their political, judicial and regulatory constraints, and that they sometimes clash with lawmakers and judges. Perhaps the most troubling disclosure (so far unproven) is that the NSA deliberately weakened the hardware and software sold by American companies in order to secretly exploit those vulnerabilities.
But none of this remotely justifies the damage caused. Even Snowden himself justified his leaks not by alleging that we live in a world akin to Orwell’s 1984, but because he fears we are heading that way.
Indeed, Snowden seems to have conducted his activities within the NSA to be as devastating as possible. He stole far more documents than he needed to support his case, and did so in an exceptionally harmful way, making it hard for his victims to work out which systems were breached.
The most controversial issue is whether Snowden acted alone. I am stunned that some journalists and commentators who are so extraordinarily paranoid about the actions of their own governments are so trusting when it comes to the aims and capabilities of the government of Russia – the country where Snowden arrived in such curious circumstances, and lives in such secrecy. (Scanty clues suggest that he is in or near the Russian foreign intelligence headquarters in Yasenevo in southern Moscow.)
I am not arguing that Snowden or his allies are Russian agents. But history gives plenty of examples of indirect Kremlin involvement in political movements which were damaging to Western interests.
Like the anti-nuclear movement of the early Eighties, modern campaigners for privacy and digital freedom see their own countries’ flaws with blinding clarity, and ignore those of repressive regimes elsewhere. Their mistrust means that little said by governments carries any weight.
But the Snowdenistas go far beyond the anti-nuclear campaigners in their thirst for damage. Disagreeing with your government’s actions is one thing. Sabotaging them is another.
The Snowden affair is a story of secrecy and deception – but not on the side of the intelligence agencies. Far too little attention has been paid to the political agendas of the most ardent Snowdenistas – people such as the bombastic Brazil-based blogger, Glenn Greenwald, hysterical “hacktivist” Jacob Appelbaum, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
They cloak their extreme and muddled beliefs in the language of privacy rights, civil liberties and digital freedoms. But where they part company with most of their fellow citizens is that they appear not to support the right of an elected, law-abiding government to keep and defend its secrets. They could found a political party based on such ideas. But it would get nowhere. They are bringing about the greatest peacetime defeat in the history of the West. That is not a noble crusade. It is sabotage and treason.
Edward Lucas writes for ‘The Economist’. ‘The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster’ is available at amazon.co.uk