What else did ex-NASA contractor Edward Snowden purloin from the American intelligence database before he did a runner – in addition to the bombs he has planted under US ties with foreign leaders?
One answer to this question is that no one knows – but many spy agencies worldwide are not waiting to find out before preparing for the worst, especially now that he lives in asylum in Moscow under heavy SVR guard, the Russian equivalent of the CIA.
The CIA and NSA, which employed Snowden for seven years, from 2006-2013, will have been the first to try and evaluate the damage he caused, determine what data he unloaded and which revelations may still be out there. They have already dubbed Snowden’s actions the most deleterious leak in US intelligence history.
Notwithstanding the diplomatic fallout suffered by the US administration, the key issue is not which world leaders’ phones US intelligence bugged, but how many secret foreign intelligence agency Internet sites were breached by US eavesdroppers and whom they were monitoring?
This data was carried off by the former NSA contractor who lives under Russian intelligence protection.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were justly furious over clandestine US taps on their phones, but their own spy agencies were jolted even more to discover how big were the ears listening in on and recording their most secret communications.
A mad race to pull endangered agents
However close their government’s alliance with Washington may be, the BND German foreign intelligence agency which defers directly to the Chancellor’s Office, the DGSE French General Directorate for External Security and the Israeli Mossad all possess tons of precious data which do not always reach their bosses in government, certainly not by cell phone.
So if the NSA and other US agencies did indeed penetrate foreign spy agencies, Snowden will have got away with inside knowledge of their undercover spy rings and operations.
Since that is almost certainly the case, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources have every reason to believe that a major upheaval is in progress – not just in US intelligence networks but across the board of the espionage industry around the world in a mad race to shut down, recover and replace the blown networks.
Hundreds if not thousands of double agents are most probably being abruptly pulled out before they are burned and the governments running them identified by their host-governments, by cross-checking the information leaked by Snowden with their own records.
The last major hullabaloo in the intelligence world, necessitating a comprehensive housecleaning, occurred 19 years ago when Aldrich Hazen Ames, chief of CIA counterintelligence against Russia betrayed a list of American and other Western spy rings to the KGB.
Damage caused by Snowden likened to Ames’ devastation
Back then, in mid-1994, the electronic transfer of information was much less developed and so spy agencies were less dependent on this tool for covert communication. Yet even then, Ames by secretly gaining control of the computers serving US intelligence, the Pentagon and scientific research institutes of US nuclear and military industries, was able to funnel a huge volume of top-secret data directly to Moscow and sell many American undercover agents down the river.
To this day, US intelligence hates to admit that many of America’s diplomatic and military foul-ups in the ‘80s and ‘90s may have been down to Ames’s gift to Moscow of an open sesame it had never had before to the heart of US intelligence digital systems.
So grave was the damage that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and member of the commission probing the Ames affair, made a comment which no one has ever explained: In the light of the Ames affair, he said, there was no choice but to shut down the CIA.
Western intelligence officials have already been heard remarking that the damage caused by Snowden, acclaimed by many Americans as a whistleblower who exposed the unlawful invasion of their privacy, may eventually turn out to be no less serious than the trouble caused by the traitor Aldrich Ames.
Top Russian security office becomes Snowden’s lawyer
Few people in the world of espionage are ready to accept the Snowden claim that his flight to Hong Kong followed by Moscow was a lone escapade. Subsequent rumors that his final destination was Ecuador and Iceland were quickly discounted as red herrings.
A report carried by the Russian newspaper Kommersant offered a strong clue to his intentions: He was said after arriving in Hong Kong and shortly before he flew out to Moscow to have resided at the Russian consulate.
This account was denied in Moscow, but the identity of the denier was even more instructive than the story itself.
Anatoly Kucherena stated firmly that Snowden “did not enter into any communication with our diplomats when he was in Hong Kong.”
Now, it just so happens that Kucherena was then head of the Russian Interior Ministry’s public council and a member of the Russian Federal Security Service FSB. It also happened that he was the lawyer who took the fugitive American’s case in July. These clues supported the suspicion that Snowden had previous ties with Russian intelligence prior to his move.
Explaining his motives on June 9, 2013, Snowden said: “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong. …I don’t want to live in a society that does these sorts of things (surveillance on its citizens)… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded… My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
Snowden’s sudden change of face
However plausible and praiseworthy these sentiments may be, they do not quite explain his travel route and eventual destination.
Since his escape, several intelligence sources are alleging that Snowden, using the pseudonym “TheTrueHOOHA,” authored hundreds of posts on technology news provider Ars Technica’s chat rooms, even before he had joined the CIA (and later the NSA), to raise various issues.
In a January 2009 entry, three years into his employment with the CIA, TheTrueHOOHA exhibited strong support for the United States’ security state apparatus and said he believed leakers of classified information “should be shot in the balls.”
But then, in February 2010, TheTrueHOOHA wrote, “I wonder, how well would envelopes that became transparent under magical federal candlelight have sold in 1750? 1800? 1850? 1900? 1950?”
These posts sound suspiciously like an offer of state secrets to the highest bidder, or perhaps a secret message by pre-arranged code. It is therefore hard to believe that they failed to attract the notice either of the CIA, the FBI or the NSA.
ELINT: A corridor for clandestine inter-agency interaction
Our intelligence experts recall the Cold War netherworld which in the second half of the 20th century ran a hidden “intelligence corridor” used by double agents of opposing agencies to rendezvous clandestinely at different locations. They would trade secrets with their opposite numbers – often without the knowledge of their handlers – and try to turn them round for recruitment. For the most part, the Russian services were craftier players at this game and chalked up successes. For this reason, US intelligence agencies shifted the focus of their operations over the years away from HUMINT – intelligence gathered in interpersonal contacts – preferring to embrace ELINT, electronics signals intelligence, in the arts of which America had a strong technological advantage.
Edward Snowden, may have operated in a digital version of the “intelligence corridor” – except he would not have needed to travel undercover to foreign places to interact with rival double agents, whether Russian, Chinese, French, German or Israeli. He could engage them online by the medium of electronic intelligence – all of them using false identities as is customary on the social media.
The computer experts of the various spy agencies working on ways to hack into rival intelligence computers may also form personal acquaintanceships with their opposite numbers. The cyber war in the world of espionage brings individual and groups into a variety of associations.
Damage to US intelligence will unfold in future upsets
It is very possible that three months after Snowden high-tailed it to Hong Kong, the NSA and CIA have uncovered leads to his foreign associates in the clandestine electronic world, discovered how his views were turned round from pro- to anti- American, and found how he came to end up in Moscow in the hands of Russian intelligence.
The Obama administration has stopped making a fuss about Moscow harboring a fugitive agent wanted for trial in the United States, mostly to avoid rocking the boat at a time of active Russian collaboration in pushing along diplomatic tracks the two toughest issues in the Middle East – Iran’s nuclear program and the bloodbath in Syria.
But some European intelligence officials offer an alternative theory: US intelligence capability vis-à-vis Russia and Iran has been seriously compromised by Snowden’s defection in which Moscow may well have had a hand and serious upsets may still be coming as his revelations eat at the innards of America’s clandestine machinery.
Some stirrings of turbulence in the intelligence world are seen waiting a chance to surface, DEBKA Weekly reports.