It’s now exactly eight months since the Snowden Affair broke, and I daresay that last June few would have been able to predict the ample fallout. One development, in particular, though not perhaps the most important, has been particularly surprising: Snowden’s elevation, in the eyes of many of my friends, colleagues and counterparts around the world, into a secular saint.
The fugitive NSA contractor, so the narrative goes, has sacrificed his career and risked his freedom to expose systematic wrongdoing by Western intelligence agencies: he has shown that America and Britain spy not only on their enemies and rivals, but on neutral and friendly countries too. They target international summits and foreign leaders. They hoover up and store vast quantities of information about domestic e-mails and phone calls. They use secret court orders to force American-based companies into cooperation. They can bug almost any international phone call, e-mail or other message.
Snowden’s daring heist of secrets from America’s National Security Agency means that we are far better informed about such activities. To escape retribution, the most hunted man on the planet has fled to a secret hiding place where awaits the vindication he deserves. It is the stuff of spy movies—played out in real life.
The plot is indeed thrilling. But I see Snowden as a villain not a hero. A mixture of naiveté, hypocrisy and hysteria has coloured world reaction to his actions. My new book, The Snowden Operation, 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 a whistleblower to justify his breach of trust, he has to do three things. He has to expose grave wrongdoing which could not be remedied through normal channels. He has to minimise danger to public safety and security. And he should steal and leak only those materials that are relevant to his cause.
Snowden fails all three parts of this test. The material published is shocking, and in part troubling. But it does not prove systematic, sinister wrongdoing or abuse by the NSA or its foreign allies. The typical revelation consists of Powerpoint slides designed for internal training or other presentations. They describe—often rather boastfully—how different parts of the agency bug and snoop, and how they search the vast warehouses of information they collect. But these come devoid of context. Are the programs mentioned being proposed, or actually implemented? Are they still active? Who authorizes them, in what circumstances? 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. But the outrage is hollow. Did anyone really think that the hackers and code-crackers in Fort Meade, Maryland (headquarters of the NSA) spent all day playing Sudoku? Their capabilities are indeed colossal. But so they should be, given the taxpayers’ money they consume.
Foreign espionage is an inherently disreputable trade: it involves stealing secrets. When details leak, they look shocking. But a shock is not necessarily a scandal. Our enemies—notably Russia and China—are spying on us. Indeed, 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, in a truly sinister twist, was also spying for the Russians. As I remind readers in my book, none other than Jim Woolsey, the former director of the CIA, wrote an article a few years ago in the Wall Street Journal explaining why America spied on its European allies, and why it would continue to do so. Nothing has changed since then.
In any case, far from denigrating American intelligence we should applaud it. It helps catch terrorists, gangster and foreign spies. The 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. Would Switzerland or Austria, say trust Germany enough to sign a no-spy deal? I suspect not.
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 Great Satan of the intelligence world.
Other disclosures are similarly hard to justify. Why is it in the public interest to reveal how the NSA intercepts e-mails, phone calls, and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan, or to show that the agency is intensifying scrutiny on the security of that country’s nuclear weapons? Snowden even revealed details of how the NSA hacks into computers and mobile phones in China and Hong Kong.
The spin and hype surrounding these leaks has cast a harsh, distorting and damaging light on the intelligence agencies’ work. The damage is catastrophic. It dwarfs the damage done by the traitors of cold-war era. Our spymasters are aghast at the damage, but stay tight-lipped about details for fear of making matters worse.
In truth, they could hardly be much worse. In the spy world, the damage-control effort involved when even a handful of secret documents are leaked or go missing 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 worthwhile intelligence operations must now be shut down or started anew: a serious spy service does not put lives at risk on the hopeful 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 redact the published material in order not to breach security. How can they possibly know what will be damaging and what may be harmless? Seemingly anodyne pieces of information can be gravely damaging when combined. Whether the documents stolen by Snowden number in tens of thousands, or 1.7m (sources differ) the combinations—and the damage—are almost beyond measure.
As I argue in the book, the damage done by Snowden’s revelations neatly and suspiciously fits the interests of one country: Russia. The sensationalist and 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 rest of the world; and it has paralysed our intelligence agencies.
All that 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 competitors in Russia and China and elsewhere are gleeful. The Snowdenistas seem oblivious to the idea that we in the West have enemies and competitors. Yet if we suffer, they gain.
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 about arbitrary power actually 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, damage, 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, and from where and when, the content of the call matter less than the circumstances.
The revelations have also shown that intelligence agencies and their employees make mistakes, that they operate up to the limits of their political, judicial and regulatory constraints, and that they sometimes clash with the lawmakers and judges who supervise them. Perhaps the most troubling disclosure is the suggestion (so far unproven) that the NSA deliberately weakened the hardware and software sold by American companies, in order to be able secretly to exploit those vulnerabilities. If that indeed happened, it was a tactical triumph but a grave strategic error.
But none of this remotely justifies damage caused. Even Snowden himself justified his leaks not by alleging that we live in a world akin to Orwell’s 1984, but merely because he fears we are heading that way. To guard against this hypothetical threat, he and his friends have done huge harm right now.
Snowden stole far more documents than he needed to support his case, and did so in an exceptionally harmful way, making it hard for the NSA to work out what systems were breached and what may be still secure.
The most controversial issue is whether Snowden acted alone. I am stunned that colleagues 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, which I detail in the book, 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 conscious Russian agents. But history gives plenty of examples of indirect Kremlin involvement in political movements that were gravely damaging to Western interests. Like the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1980s, modern campaigners for privacy and digital freedom see their own countries’ flaws with blinding clarity, and ignore those of the repressive regimes elsewhere. They manifest a corrosive mistrust for their political leaders and public officials, to the point that little said by governments carries any weight at all. 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 indeed 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, the hysterical hacktivist Jacob Appelbaum, and the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. These people 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-governed government to keep and defend its secrets. They could found a political party based on such ideas. But it would get nowhere. Instead, but by their actions, they are bringing about the greatest peacetime defeat in the history of the West. That is not a noble crusade. It should be called sabotage—or treason.