Hacking and Leaking
A Bad Week for Western Intel

Britain’s MI6 has allegedly pulled agents from the field on suspicion that NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s trove of encrypted documents has been decrypted by Russian and Chinese intelligence services, the Sunday Times reports:

A senior Downing Street source said: “It is the case that Russians and Chinese have information. It has meant agents have had to be moved and that knowledge of how we operate has stopped us getting vital information. There is no evidence of anyone being harmed.”

The confirmation is the first evidence that Snowden’s disclosures have exacted a human toll. “Why do you think Snowden ended up in Russia?” said a senior Home Office source. “Putin didn’t give him asylum for nothing. His documents were encrypted but they weren’t completely secure and we have now seen our agents and assets being targeted.”

A British intelligence source said: “We know Russia and China have access to Snowden’s material and will be going through it for years to come, searching for clues to identify potential targets.

“Snowden has done incalculable damage. In some cases the agencies have been forced to intervene and lift their agents from operations to prevent them from being identified and killed.”

This comes on the heels of official confirmation that the OPM breach likely exposed security clearance documents for millions of employees going back to the 1980s. The implications are similar:

While the Central Intelligence Agency does its own clearance investigations, agencies such as the State Department, Defense Department and National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on the world, all use OPM’s services to some degree.

Intelligence veterans said the breach may prove disastrous because China could use it to find relatives of U.S. officials abroad as well as evidence of love affairs or drug use which could be used to blackmail or influence U.S. officials.

An even worse scenario would be the mass unmasking of covert operatives in the field, they said.

Civil libertarians are right to be concerned with surveillance overreach by Western governments, but they ought to also firmly keep in mind the broader context in which all of these debates are taking place. While the shady world of intelligence and counterintelligence does have an unwritten code of conduct, it is still largely a zero-sum world. Russia and China are real global adversaries and rivals, with interests that often do not coincide with ours. Intelligence gathering is a vital part of ensuring national security in such an environment. We can (and should) consider placing some legal safeguards and limits on government surveillance, but we also mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

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