The Snowden Story Slowly Unravels

I am grateful to the German newspaper BILD for running this piece as “Wie Snowdens schöne Geschichte langsam zerfällt” For the benefit of readers who don’t know German, I’m providing the English version — enjoy!

Exactly two years after Edward Snowden went public with his exposure of Western intelligence secrets, causing a global sensation, the basic facts of his case are unraveling. Many who welcomed his exposure of National Security Agency domestic operations, for instance metadata collection, were nevertheless troubled by his move to Moscow.

Taking up residency under Putin’s roof, which Snowden shows no signs of leaving, was never a good fit with his status as a freedom-loving “whistleblower.” Russia, run by a former KGB man, spies on its citizens far more aggressively than any of the Western countries whose secrets have been exposed by Snowden – to say nothing of the mysterious deaths of politicians, journalists and others who fall afoul of Putin and his Kremlin.

Ironically, given the intense debate over the Snowden revelations in Germany, it has been this country where the real unraveling of the storyline has begun. The end of the year-long Federal inquiry into Snowden’s allegation’s led by Attorney General Harald Range, without any charges against NSA, has disappointed many admirers of Snowden. Yet this inquiry failed due to a lack of hard evidence. Some of the documents offered as “proof” of NSA espionage against Chancellor Angela Merkel are copies, not originals, and therefore lack probative value.

Moreover, Snowden does not seem to really understand much of what he has exposed. As a Federal prosecutor explained, Snowden provided “no evidence that he has his own knowledge” (keine Hinweise dafür, dass er über eigene Kenntnisse verfügt). He is in no position to actually explain what NSA does.

Although Snowden has presented himself as a “spy” at the heart of NSA’s global espionage network, the mundane truth is that he was an IT contractor who never actually worked on NSA’s signals intelligence program. In his last assignment, Snowden analyzed Chinese cyber capabilities against the United States – which may appear suspicious given the recent unprecedented hacking of U.S. Government databases, an apparent Chinese operation – but that job was on the Agency’s defensive side, protecting sensitive government communications. Snowden is no expert on NSA’s collection of foreign communications.

Worse news for Snowden’s admirers comes with a report that Western secret services have been badly harmed by his compromise. Western intelligence has pulled agents out of “hostile countries,” fearing for their safety, after both the Russian and Chinese intelligence services have cracked into Snowden’s cache of some 1.7 million purloined documents and learned their vast secrets. “We have now seen our agents and assets being targeted,” explained a British official. The result, said a British intelligence source, has been “incalculable damage.”

Although London is not commenting on the report’s details, as Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond explained, “nobody should be in any doubt that Edward Snowden has caused immense damage.”

This is commonsensical as the Snowden compromise represents the greatest loss in the history of Western intelligence. It included some of the most closely guarded secrets of numerous Western intelligence agencies. Worse, among those 1.7 million documents are 900,000 files stolen from the Pentagon, military secrets that have nothing to do with protecting civil liberties.

This British report does immense harm to the Snowden cause because from the outset Ed and his journalist partners have repeatedly stated that his huge data cache is safe. Snowden said he took no NSA documents to Russia, insisting a few months after his move to Moscow, “There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents.” Although Snowden asserted he had not taken his NSA files to Russia with him, his close partner Glenn Greenwald stated, three weeks after Snowden’s arrival in Moscow, that the records were still in Ed’s possession.

The Snowden inner circle has been unable to keep their story straight about where these very sensitive documents are, yet they have insisted that the purloined secrets Snowden stole from NSA are safe — somewhere. Greenwald has openly mocked suggestions that the Russians or Chinese could get their hands on them.

This appears like vain silliness to anyone acquainted with the capabilities of the Russian and Chinese intelligence services. Where was Snowden during the last ten days of May 2013, after he left Hawaii but before he checked into Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel on June 1? It smacks of naïveté to think Beijing did not expect something in return for giving Snowden sanctuary en route to Moscow.

Moreover, it is surpassingly naïve not to think that Russian intelligence has secured Snowden’s cooperation in exchange for sanctuary. Putin’s FSB is not motivated by charity and access to those 1.7 million documents, a goldmine for the Kremlin, would be the normal quid pro quo for offering refuge to an American on the run with valuable secrets.

Defectors are always debriefed at length by the host’s security service, this is a constant in the real world of espionage. Russian defectors to the United States collaborate with American intelligence, and nobody is seriously suggesting that Putin’s FSB is more liberal.

Every Western intelligence defector to Moscow since 1917 has collaborated with the Kremlin. There is no choice, as Snowden has surely discovered. “Of course” Snowden is collaborating with the FSB, explained Oleg Kalugin, the former head of KGB foreign counterintelligence, over a year ago, stating the reality of how the spy game gets played.

It remains an open question when Snowden’s relationship with Russian intelligence began, but denying that he has one now, after two years in Russia, reflects a deep misunderstanding of how Putin, his Kremlin, and the FSB operate.

For two years, Edward Snowden and his advocates have spun an enticing yarn about a pure-hearted and heroic lover of freedom who “told the truth” about Western democracies. In reality, the “whistleblower” may be no more than a pawn of countries that seek to harm the West.

While discrediting the intelligence work of law-based democracies, Snowden’s efforts have enabled espionage by less free countries. We now have reports that the computer of Chancellor Angela Merkel was a victim of May’s massive cyberattack on the Bundestag, which German security officials believe was Russian in origin.

The BfV has repeatedly warned that Russian and Chinese espionage against Germany is rising fast, far outpacing the efforts of NSA or any Western spy services to learn Berlin’s secrets. Now that Snowden’s story has begun to unravel, it’s time to assess security threats more honestly.