Snowden is never an American patriot. To hard-core haters of the federal government, Edward Snowden is a hero. To national security obsessors, he’s a traitor. In “The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster,” Edward Lucas brings 30 years’ experience covering Eastern Europe to the case and suggests Snowden is likely a naïf whom the Russian security services recruited some time ago — and that is the best-case scenario for Snowden’s supporters. While there is no smoking gun, Lucas makes a better argument for his interpretation than I have seen for any other.
Lucas begins by arguing that Snowden’s theft of NSA documents and their subsequent leaking to the press harmed American intelligence specifically and Western intelligence generally in five ways:
It weakened America’s relations with its allies
It harmed the security relationships with those allies
It corroded the Western public’s trust in their nation’s security and intelligence services
It undermined the West’s standing in the eyes of the rest of the world
It has paralyzed Western intelligence agencies
The first four are beyond dispute, and if those are granted, I don’ t think his case is damaged if the latter were proved to be untrue. Where I differ with Lucas is in the importance of what Snowden leaked, the actual content. Most of the documents I have seen were nonsense that should never have been classified, or even written, because of the innocuous nature of the communication.
For instance, Snowden leaked a memo from the U.S. embassy in Paris that stated one of America’s intelligence officers found French President Nicolas Sarkozy to be thin-skinned. I cannot think of a French leader under any of its five republics and two empires about whom that assessment would be untrue. That needed to be classified?
To his credit, Lucas believes that there is a need to reform the American intelligence community and to keep it within the bounds of the law. There are too many people with top secret clearance handling too many documents that don’t need to be marked top secret. He believes that the “Snowdenistas” are throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to addressing the problem, though. Unlike them, Lucas can tell the difference between intelligence operations run on behalf of a democratic government that is governed by laws, congressional and judicial review and those run on behalf of an authoritarian kleptocracy.
Where the book is at its most interesting is where Lucas makes the case that Snowden was possibly recruited by the Russian SVR (the post-Soviet KGB) under a false flag. That is a term used in intelligence whereby a person works for an intelligence service while thinking the assistance is rendered elsewhere. For example, the KGB was very good at recruiting Jews by posing as operatives of Israeli intelligence.
Lucas suggests (and is careful to say that there is not definitive proof) that Snowden was recruited by the Russians by convincing him he was really aiding an open government cause. Lucas traces timelines and connections to Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras and illustrates how these individuals could have unwittingly helped the SVR develop Snowden as an asset.
Would it stand up in court? No. Does it work as a theory that fits the facts as we know them? Yes.
It has been my pleasure to know Ed for over 30 years. We were at the London School of Economics together, we were both active members of the Union of Liberal Students, and I served as his election agent (campaign manager) when he won the job of General Secretary of the LSE Student Union (the first non-socialist to win in years) back in 1984. We have been in contact ever since.
His detractors say that he is a puppet of the security state and has been accused of being anti-Russian. Based on three decades of friendship, I can say definitively that Ed is no one’s puppet. And as for hating the Russians, I submit that you don’t spend 30 years doing the kind of reporting and writing that Ed has done because you hate the Russians. You do it because you love the Russians and you’re sick of their government abusing them and their neighbors.