Belmont Club

The Prodigal Son

The Guardian claims that the NSA is willing to recommend amnesty for Edward Snowden in exchange for his cooperation. “National Security Agency officials are considering a controversial amnesty that would return Edward Snowden to the United States, in exchange for the extensive document trove the whistleblower took from the agency.”


An amnesty, which does not have the support of the State Department, would represent a surprising denouement to an international drama that has lasted half a year. It is particularly unexpected from a surveillance agency that has spent months insisting that Snowden’s disclosures have caused vast damage to US national security.

The objective here cannot be the recovery of the secrets in Snowden’s possession. Those are lost.  “The NSA doesn’t even know how many documents Snowden has in the first place.” What is of greater importance is the circumstance that Snowden could not have stolen all those secrets himself. Therefore the amnesty offer, if genuine, cannot be conceivably aimed at “recovering” secrets which are now lost to the other side, but at discovering who else was involved.  Open source research has identified some of his external helpers, but who helped him on the inside?

One explanatory line, described in the New York Times, suggested that Snowden stole documents because the access logging software ordered by President Obama in 2011 had yet to be installed.

In October 2011, Mr. Obama signed an executive order establishing a task force charged with “deterring, detecting and mitigating insider threats, including the safeguarding of classified information from exploitation, compromise, or other unauthorized disclosure.” The task force, led by the attorney general and the director of national intelligence, has the responsibility of developing policies and new technologies to protect classified information.

But one of the changes, updating computer systems to track the digital meanderings of the employees of intelligence agencies, occurred slowly.

“We weren’t able to flip a switch and have all of those changes made instantly,” said one American intelligence official.

Lonny Anderson, the N.S.A.’s chief technology officer, said in a recent interview that much of what Mr. Snowden took came from parts of the computer system open to anyone with a high-level clearance. And part of his job was to move large amounts of data between different parts of the system.

But, Mr. Anderson said, Mr. Snowden’s activities were not closely monitored and did not set off warning signals.


Ed Epstein persuasively argued that Snowden did not act alone.

“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked, that is why I accepted that position.” My question would be, then: Was he alone in this enterprise to misappropriate communications intelligence? Before taking the job in Hawaii, Mr. Snowden was in contact with people who would later help arrange the publication of the material he purloined. Two of these individuals, filmmaker Laura Poitras and Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, were on the Board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation that, among other things, funds WikiLeaks.

In January 2013, according to the Washington Post, Mr. Snowden requested that Ms. Poitras get an encryption key for Skype so that they could have a secure channel over which to communicate.  In February, he made a similar request to Mr. Greenwald, providing him with a step-by-step video on how to set up encrypted communications.

So, before Mr. Snowden proceeded with his NSA penetration in March 2013 through his Booz Allen Hamilton job, he had assistance, either wittingly or unwittingly, in arranging the secure channel of encrypted communications that he would use to facilitate the publication of classified communications intelligence.

He had people ready to help him make a getaway.

Mr. Greenwald and Ms. Poitras also flew to Hong Kong. They were later joined by Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks representative who works closely with Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder. Mr. Snowden reportedly brought the misappropriated data to Hong Kong on four laptops and a thumb drive. He gave some of the communications intelligence to Mr. Greenwald, who had arranged to publish it in the Guardian, and Mr. Snowden arranged to have Ms. Poitras make a video of him issuing a statement that would be released on the Guardian’s website. Albert Ho, a Hong Kong lawyer, was retained to deal with Hong Kong authorities.

This orchestration did not occur in a vacuum. Airfares, hotel bills and other expenses over this period had to be paid. A safe house had to be secured in Hong Kong. Lawyers had to be retained, and safe passage to Moscow—a trip on which Mr. Snowden was accompanied by WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison—had to be organized.


Why should Snowden come back? Well Moscow might actually be sending him back and at the same time arranging for his reception.

The problem for Snowden is knowing whether the hands that secretly guided him in stealing the secrets are not the same one beckoning him home. By now Snowden has been loaded up with disinformation by the Russians. When he returns — if he returns — Snowden will playback a tune.

James Angleton would have called Snowden the “disinformation line”. In his view the Soviets (as they were then called) operated in stereophonic. They played mutually reinforcing messages.  Of greater interest to him was the identity of the “feedback line”. For in order for Snowden’s line to be bought, it has to support one of the policy lines that Moscow already knows the NSA to be considering, the one they want US intel to buy.

The ‘sent’ defector — or in this the redefector — and the moles. Each supported the other.

So Angleton’s theory came down to two lines of communications that hooked up rival intelligence service. Through one line, the disinformation channel, the perpetrator of the deception fed the other intelligence service messages disguised as intelligence. Through the other line, the feedback line, the mole in the intelligence service receiving these messages reports on how they are being assessed, and answers such questions as: Have the messages reached the right parties? Are they believed? Have they been correctly interpreted? Have they been called into question by any unexpected intelligence resource? And what additional messages would make them more credible? Once they are established, these two lines form a loop that allows a deception to be highly-effective.


So of the several theories about “what went wrong at the NSA”, the Russians already have a favored narrative. And Snowden’s  job, wittingly or unwittingly, would be go back to sell it. Perhaps not deliberately, but he will have been exposed to snippets of conversation that will tend to confirm the preferred line.

One of the more interesting possibilities is that Snowden was unleashed in order to protect an even more vital foreign asset working in the bowels of the US government. For if Snowden was the bagman for a network operating inside the NSA undetected until now, why should they reveal their hand through the Guardian?  Why the did the cell not maintain their anonymity and kept stealing for Moscow and Beijing?  Why did they advertise their existence in the most public way?

To safeguard the privacy of Americans? From Moscow via Hong Kong?

Or was the goal to shut down a whole class of sources and methods, or at least cast it into disrepute so that its product might be rendered doubtful? This would only make sense if they feared those methods were coming perilously close to a crown jewel.  CNET writes, “Surveillance agency says it has spent tens of millions of dollars to remove computers the former NSA contractor had access to, including the cables that connected them to the network.”.

All of this is idle speculation and we may never be certain of the truth any more than we know with surety who owned Oswald. But the balance of probability is that Snowden, whether you regard him as a hero or a heel, is a pawn in a bigger game the outlines of which we can only guess.


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