I think the best way to begin this is with a leading question.
Do you believe that Edward Snowden simply happened to wind up in Russia, or do you raise an eyebrow at the fact that a self-described human rights activist settled under one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet?
This saga galvanized authoritarian and libertarian minded Americans, with one side declaring Snowden a traitor and the other a civil rights hero. The sheer amount of information that he disclosed enables anyone to craft any argument about his motivations, and the President of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maassen made his conclusion earlier this year:
“This would be a spy operation connected to a disinformation and influence operation. A wedge would be driven between the US and its closest allies, especially Germany.”
After seeing this statement, I became determined to look into this issue as broadly as possible, but the more I learned, the more convinced I became that this really was the work of the Russians.
This is an incredibly complex jigsaw puzzle that is missing various pieces, but when you put as much of it together as you can, I think a fairly clear picture emerges: the Russians have a mole(s) inside the NSA. They took advantage of Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and many other genuine advocates for increased oversight on clandestine government activities in order to achieve their ultimate goal of embarrassing the United States on an international stage, all while providing their Western adversaries reasons to put distance between each other.
Bruce Schneier wrote in Wired that he believes Russia and China did obtain the Snowden documents, but not because he handed them over. Schneier argues that Russia and China have already infiltrated NSA networks and had access to all of the files Snowden stole. He raises a compelling point:
This is why I find allegations that Snowden was working for the Russians or the Chinese simply laughable. What makes you think those countries waited for Snowden? And why do you think someone working for the Russians or the Chinese would go public with their haul?
Because the desired outcome of this operation was not to simply obtain information. Hans-Georg Maassen provided the answer Schneier’s question: disinformation. This has been a key tool of Russian subversion of the West, as Anne Appelbaum and Edward Lucas of the Center for European Policy Analysis described in the Washington Post:
“Russia does not seek to promote itself, but rather to undermine the institutions of the West, often using discordant messages.”
This piece will take you through some history of Russian intelligence operations, Snowden’s background, and the saga itself in an attempt to paint a picture of a man legitimately concerned with NSA overreach, acting out of conscience while becoming a part of something much larger than just one disgruntled contractor in Hawaii. So let’s put on our tinfoil hats, enter the world of spies, and consider this possibility over the next few thousand words – many of which will not be mine.
Signals Intelligence (SIGINT)
The Zimmerman telegram was one of the chief motivators to spur the United States to join World War I. Germany’s top diplomat, Arthur Zimmerman, offered Mexico huge swaths of America as a reward for joining the cause. The British alerted us to this fact, but it was curious how they knew given that they cut the communications cord connecting each side of the Atlantic; Germany was using a US diplomatic channel to speak to the other side of the world. The only way the British could obtain this information is if they were spying on Woodrow Wilson, which they were. Admiral Hall, the director of Britain’s naval intelligence, sent an agent to Mexico City to steal a copy of the message from the telegraph office to present to us as proof, and our SIGINT community did not find out until much later how compromised their communications were.
In short, everyone spies on everyone and always has. It may sound fanciful, but the world of spies is large and it dramatically influences global affairs every day. Because all this knowledge exists, the best way to combat that information is to release items that cloud the picture, or disinformation. The dictionary definition of the word is “false information that intends to mislead, especially propaganda issued by a government organization to a rival power or the media.” However, as any SIGINT veteran will tell you, disinformation does not necessarily have to be entirely false, as the Soviets have demonstrated.
John Schindler spent a decade as an intelligence analyst and counterintelligence officer in the NSA, focusing his efforts on Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Prior to that, he specialized in cryptology at the U.S. Navy Reserve. He now is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, a writer for The Observer, and one of Edward Snowden’s most vocal critics. He wrote at The National Interest that this saga of betrayal was nothing new:
One of the great triumphs of American SIGINT as the Cold War was just beginning was a top-secret effort termed BOURBON, a joint U.S.-UK project to break into Soviet communications. By late 1947, after hard code-breaking work, BOURBON was able to read extensive amounts of encrypted Soviet military and political information. Then, over a period of a few months, BOURBON “went dark,” in spy jargon: the Soviets changed all their codes and ciphers. This loss was probably the greatest American intelligence setback of the entire Cold War.
The United States quickly discovered that William Weisband orchestrated the leak. He was a linguist working within SIGINT, operating as a KGB agent since the 1930s, right around the inception of the NSA.Soviet tactics are such that sometimes they will actually lead you to uncover one source in order to protect another one higher up. Aleksei Kulak might have been a double agent doing just that, as he claimed the KGB had a mole inside the FBI. Herbert Hoover, the authoritarian that he was, launched a massive hunt for the traitor in a campaign called UNSUB Dick that spent the 1960’s shaking the FBI to its very core, never finding the mole until identifying him years after he had left the FBI. Given the trauma felt by the Bureau, there is plenty of reason to believe this was intentional misinformation designed to do exactly what occurred.
Take one look at the history of Russian SIGINT, and it becomes clear that the US is and always has been the prime target. Russia’s immediate threat is Europe, but the continent is buoyed by its ally across the ocean, especially when it comes to military affairs. One glance at NATO’s funding and it looks more like a branch of the US military than a transcontinental coalition. The Soviet Union spent nearly a century working to undermine American power, with no case more prominent than one that bears resemblance to the Snowden ordeal.
Covert Action Information Bulletin was inspired and partially published by former CIA agent Philip Agee. The prime source of its fame came from its “Naming Names” column, which revealed the identities of undercover CIA officers. Congress quickly passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, making it illegal to name covert operatives (it wasn’t already???). The column ended in 1982, but not before making a dramatic impact by revealing American meddling in Latin America, as William Blum explained at Consortiumnews.com:
Under CIA manipulation, direction and, usually, their payroll, were past and present presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay and Costa Rica, “our minister of labor”, “our vice-president”, “my police”, journalists, labor leaders, student leaders, diplomats, and many others. If the Agency wished to disseminate anti-communist propaganda, cause dissension in leftist ranks, or have Communist embassy personnel expelled, it need only prepare some phony documents, present them to the appropriate government ministers and journalists, and presto! instant scandal.
This dubious practice created uproar around the world, for good reason. Many had come to trust these institutions that wound up being nothing more than levers of power in the CIA’s offices. Like Snowden, Agee shone a light on deplorable government practices – while also aiding any hegemon not aligned with Western powers. Unlike Snowden, Agee was clearly compromised, as he made giving the SIGINT community a headache his life’s work. He wrote a book in 1975 called “Inside the Company: CIA Diary” that identified about 250 officers, front companies, and foreign agents working for the US.
Oleg Kalugin is respected in all SIGINT circles, as he brings as much credibility to the table as anyone. He was the youngest Soviet general at the height of the Cold War, heading up the foreign counterintelligence office of the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate. He has also been a U.S. citizen since 2003 and a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin, even calling him a war criminal after the invasion of Chechnya. Kalugin told the New York Times that that Agee approached the Soviets in Mexico in the 1970s, but was rejected because the officer could not believe that he was for real. Agee then supplied the Cubans with details of CIA operations in Latin America, which were passed on to the KGB. “He was a valuable source” said Kalugin.
He is much less certain of the entirety of Snowden’s contribution, but the KGB legend is sure of one thing:
“These days, the Russians are very pleased with the gifts Edward Snowden has given them. He’s busy doing something. He is not just idling his way through life.”
So what “gifts” did Snowden give to the Russians? There is plenty reason to believe Bruce Schneier’s assertion that the Russians and Chinese already had access to the heart of the NSA, but not because of any hack. Jeffrey Delisle, a Canadian naval officer, was caught passing volumes of classified information to the GRU (Russian military intelligence) in 2012, or as he called it “American stuff, there was some British stuff, Australian stuff – it was everybody’s stuff.” Snowden’s information probably filled in the gaps in Delisle’s, but his true gift was PR.
The high profile rollup of a Russian spy network by US counterintelligence in 2010 surely provided motivation for the Russians to strike back. Of the ten spies expelled from the country, one certainly had a specific job in the event word ever got out. The Kremlin plans for every contingency.
American media predictably took Russia’s bait, and Anna Chapman distracted everyone from the larger story at hand, which was the public humiliation of Russian SIGINT.
Background on Edward Snowden
Snowden’s ghost exists all over the early web. The above is his first post on the ArsTechnica forums, and an archived version of Snowden’s profile on the now defunct Ryhuana Press gives us quite a bit of insight into the adolescence of America’s most notorious fugitive.
I like Japanese, I like food, I like martial arts, I like ponies, I like guns, I like food, I like girls, I like my girlish figure that attracts girls, and I like my lamer friends. That’s the best biography you’ll get out of me, coppers!
He goes on to talk about RPG’s and going to an event called Okaton before ending with
”...I really am a nice guy, though. You see, I act arrogant and cruel because I was not hugged enough as a child, and because the public education system turned it’s wretched, spikéd back on me.”
He lists his theme song on this anime site as The Natural Playboy, which is every bit as cheesy as you would expect it to be. As far as nerd cred goes, teenage Edward Snowden was swimming in it. In an interview with James Bamford at Wired that sometimes reads like a PR piece for Snowden, he details an upbringing in a family with a father enlisted in the Coast Guard, a mother working in the US District Court in Baltimore, and an older sister who became a lawyer at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington. “Everybody in my family has worked for the federal government in one way or another, I expected to pursue that same path” said Snowden. He scored above 145 on two separate IQ tests, and read Greek mythology growing up.
“I think that’s when I started thinking about how we identify problems, and that the measure of an individual is how they address and confront those problems.”
Snowden missed 10th grade due to mononucleosis, and instead of repeating the year, he enrolled in community college to study computers. Soon after, he began working for a classmate’s tech business run out of a house at Fort Meade, just a short drive from the NSA’s headquarters.
I still very strongly believed that the government wouldn’t lie to us, that our government had noble intent, and that the war in Iraq was going to be what they said it was, which was a limited, targeted effort to free the oppressed. I wanted to do my part.
In 2004, Snowden joined the army before washing out after breaking both of his legs in training. He then took his first job at the NSA as a security guard at one of their covert facilities at the University of Maryland, before landing with the technical team at the CIA, and rising quickly through the ranks. The CIA sent him to their secret school for technology specialists before leaving for Geneva, Switzerland in 2007 to investigate the banking industry. He was assigned to the US Mission to the United Nations and given a cover assignment. Edward Snowden had become for all intents and purposes, a spy.
It was this assignment that would serve as the fork in the road, leading to his current stay in Moscow, as he told Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian:
“Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world. I realized that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.”
He described an incident where operatives encouraged a banker to drive drunk, helping him get out of it when he was inevitably pulled over, thus creating an intelligence asset for the CIA. This was just the tip of the iceberg of what would perturb Snowden.
“This was the Bush period, when the war on terror had gotten really dark. We were torturing people; we had warrantless wiretapping.”
This was the first time he thought about whistleblowing, but the election of Barack Obama gave him hope.
I think even Obama’s critics were impressed and optimistic about the values that he represented. He said that we’re not going to sacrifice our rights. We’re not going to change who we are just to catch some small percentage more terrorists.
Like many of us, Obama let down Snowden.
Not only did they not fulfill those promises, but they entirely repudiated them. They went in the other direction. What does that mean for a society, for a democracy, when the people that you elect on the basis of promises can basically suborn the will of the electorate?
By 2010, he was living in Japan as an NSA technical expert with Dell, a major contractor for the agency. He spent much of his time advising top officials and military advisors how to shield their communications from Chinese hackers. As he counseled some of our best people on their digital livelihood, he learned more about targeted killings and mass surveillance. He returned to Maryland in 2011, working as Dell’s lead technologist with the CIA. Snowden described a gig that inferred Top Secret clearance:
I would sit down with the CIO of the CIA, the CTO of the CIA, the chiefs of all the technical branches. They would tell me their hardest technology problems, and it was my job to come up with a way to fix them.
By 2012, Dell moved him to lead technologist for their information-sharing office, a massive 250,000 square foot former torpedo storage facility in Hawaii. Snowden was shocked to learn that when the NSA passed on the communications of Americans to Israeli intelligence, it was not minimizing the files (where personally identifiable data is removed). This trove included the e-mails and phone calls of millions of Arab and Palestinian Americans communicating with their relatives in Palestine, opening up the possibility that they could be targeted. “I think that’s amazing,” he said, “It’s one of the biggest abuses we’ve seen.”
In early 2013, Booz Allen Hamilton, the other massive security contractor for the NSA, hired him. Most of his short time there focused on Chinese hackers, but they went too far.
“It’s no secret that we hack China very aggressively, but we’ve crossed lines. We’re hacking universities and hospitals and wholly civilian infrastructure rather than actual government targets and military targets. And that’s a real concern.”
The “last straw” for Snowden occurred in two stages, first with the discovery of a developing cyber warfare initiative codenamed MonsterMind. The program acted very much the way it sounds. Data mining systems harvesting from a Nile size river of traffic are nothing new to surveillance, but this was different in that the attacks back into the river were automated, requiring no human initiative. Snowden highlights the obvious conflict at the heart of this:
These attacks can be spoofed. You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?
The second act came in the form of CIA Director James Clapper’s testimony to Congress on March 13, 2013.
Not only does America’s chief spymaster have a tell that would be called down in a child’s poker game, but he blatantly lied under oath, or as Snowden put it:
“I think I was reading it in the paper the next day, talking to coworkers, saying, can you believe this shit?”
The man we are supposed to trust with all of our digital communication has such little regard for the laws that govern us that he will willingly lie under oath, and then come back a year later spitting this garbage:
“I realized later Sen. Wyden was asking about … metadata collection, rather than content collection. Thus, my response was clearly erroneous, for which I apologize.”
I don’t know about you, but if I were in possession of documents proving how full of shit this man is, I sure would want to leak them. Part of what makes Snowden such a compelling figure is that no matter what you think of him, he did push some very important violations out into the light. The NSA had simply become too smart and too powerful. Something had to give, and this post from Snowden in the ArsTechnica forums one year after his initial flight to Geneva was a harbinger of things to come:
I woke this morning with a new name. I had had a vision. A dream vision. A vision righteous and true. Before me I saw Gamers, Gamers shrouded in the glory of their true names…Step forth, and assume your name in the pantheon. It’s always been there, your avatar’s true name. It slips through your subconscious, reveals itself under your posts, and flashed visibly in that moment of unrestrained spite; in the indulgent teabag. You’ve felt it, known it, recognized it. Now realize it. I woke this morning with a new name. That name is Wolfking. Wolfking Awesomefox.
How it Happened
On December 1st, 2012, Edward Snowden reached out to journalist Glenn Greenwald, then of the Guardian, now of The Intercept, about leaking government secrets. A month later, he contacts Greenwald’s colleague, filmmaker Laura Poitras. In March of 2013, he begins working at Booz Allen, and four weeks later, he claimed to be sick and requested leave without pay. He would send documents to Greenwald, Poitras, and Bruce Gelman of the Washington Post the following month. According to Snowden, he left Hawaii and arrived in Hong Kong on May 20th.
But according to Century 21 real estate agent Kerri Jo Heim and neighbor Carolyn Tijing, he was out on May 1st. Heim claims that the owner wanted the couple out so they could sell the home, and Tijing saw Snowden and his girlfriend with moving boxes “lining their garage from floor to ceiling” before taking off. This might seem like a trivial detail, but when discussing espionage, dates matter very much. If Snowden’s narrative differs from on the record witnesses, one can’t help but ask why. And if he did leave on May 1st, why did he feel the need to tell journalists a different date?
On June 2nd, Greenwald and Poitras land in Hong Kong and Snowden hands them 10,000 documents. The NSA claimed he stole 1.7 million (discrepancy number two). Three days later, the Guardian releases the first revelation from the Snowden documents: the NSA is Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily. The feds monitoring our phones is as old as the technology itself, but what made this so shocking is the pervasive use of the word “all,” which has a harrowing legal definition in this case.
The leak the next day detailed PRISM, a tool that the NSA uses to tap into Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple, or as Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras reported it: “From inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes.”
Friday and Saturday brought stories on how “Obama orders US to draw up overseas target list for cyber-attacks; and Boundless Informant, a program that tracked metadata and allowed the NSA to identify what countries are surveilled the most. This program is proof that the NSA collects data on Americans about as frequently as they do the Chinese. Should the federal government ever decide to actually prosecute powerful people, this slide will be the nail in James Clapper’s coffin.
Snowden’s revelations rocked the world, as our worst suspicions about surveillance were not only confirmed, but also taken to such an extreme as to make George Orwell blush, and PRISM became an elevator pitch to describe the NSA. The response was so powerful that Republican Senator Gordon Humphrey e-mailed Snowden to thank him. The discoveries were just beginning to mount, and the following month would bring bombshell after bombshell, revealing the true extent of the Western intelligence operation for all to see. The NSA had incurred irrevocable damage.
The problem with rushing to judgement is that judgement can be sacrificed in the process, as the program that had come to represent the entire story was reported egregiously wrong, and it just so happened to be the leak that Edward Snowden put a shot clock on. On June 9th, the day Snowden was to meet with the Guardian reporters in Hong Kong for an interview, Barton Gellman detailed the deal he made:
To effect his plan, Snowden asked for a guarantee that The Washington Post would publish—within 72 hours?—the full text of a PowerPoint presentation describing PRISM, a top-secret surveillance program that gathered intelligence from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley giants. He also asked that The Post publish online a cryptographic key that he could use to prove to a foreign embassy that he was the document’s source.
The day after the Washington Post reported on PRISM, it changed the headline, and the story was nearly twice as long, with no acknowledgement of any change other than a new timestamp, and the key phrase “knowingly participated” was eliminated from the section about the tech giant’s roles in the program. Right after the Washington Post released their story, The Guardian released one on PRISM too. Both completely botched their interpretation of this NSA slide.
The day after PRISM dropped, Declan McCullaugh of CNET refuted much of the wild accusations in the story, sparking others all over the web. Google fought back in a post titled “What the…” Both newspapers backtracked further over the weekend.
The confusion stems from a misunderstanding of the word “server.” Most of us picture them as the giant boxes across Silicon Valley that contain some of our darkest secrets. The NSA having unfettered access to the largest stores of information in history is beyond dystopian, but there is no evidence of direct access. A “server” can serve a multitude of uses. The communications everyone is grilling Hillary for relying on and not using both go in and out of a “server.”
Sometimes the government needs to obtain information, and that is why warrants exist. If presented with one, the Facebook’s of the world must find a secure method of delivery through a “server,” and as Karl Fogel put it on his blog:
If you’re going to comply, might as well do it responsibly and without increasing the compliance burden on yourself. What the hell are the companies supposed to do? Put the data on a CD-ROM and mail it to Fort Meade?
In an interview with Chris Hayes, Greenwald pushed back against these criticisms by arguing that there are various agreements surrounding whatever they are designating as a server, which can make access more direct, so the term is allegedly very malleable, but the evidence provided by Greenwald does not prove that.
So to recap, Edward Snowden gave an NSA Powerpoint to both the Guardian and the Washington Post, and told at least the Washington Post that they had three days to report the information that wound up being misinterpreted, and one story came out twenty minutes after the other – oh, and he wanted them to publish a key so a foreign embassy would know he was the source. I don’t know about you, but PRISM sure got the attention of my bullshit detector.
This is not to accuse the Guardian and the Washington Post of being complicit, just negligent. They were presented with a massive story that they failed to thoroughly vet. We still do not know the trustworthiness of their source. Snowden even lied about his salary, saying he made $200,000 when Booz Allen claim they paid him $122,000. I now count four discrepancies in Snowden’s story anywhere between seventeen and thirty-six days into this ordeal.
PRISM should have been a huge moment in the saga, but instead the truth was buried under the weight of even more revelations. Was this by design? As Kevin Drum of Mother Jones wrote:
I want to know how far I can trust Edward Snowden. He’s supposed to be a technical guru of some sort, but apparently he didn’t understand this. Or, if he did, he didn’t bother clearing it up for either Glenn Greenwald or Bart Gellman, who both went with the “direct access” phrase in their initial stories. If it’s the former, I wonder just how much he actually knows about NSA’s capabilities. If it’s the latter, I wonder about his motivations.
Snowden must be a technical guru, how else did he get that sweet undercover CIA post in Geneva with no formal education? Unless you really want to strap on your tinfoil hat, it’s the only explanation. As a former spook told the Washington Post:
I just have never heard of anyone being hired with so little academic credentials,” the former CIA official said. The agency does employ technical specialists in overseas stations, the former official said, “but their breadth of experience is huge, and they tend not to start out as systems administrators.
So what was next? Greenwald gave Chris Hayes a hint:
Although I haven’t discussed specifically with him what his plans are, he knows that he is holding some cards given that he had access to very top secret information on the part of the most secretive agency in the world. And intends to figure out how best he can protect himself. That’s my guess as to what it is he’s doing.
Snowden spent the next two weeks in Hong Kong, including his 30th birthday on June 21st…at the Russian consulate. Moscow newspaper Kommersant even reported that “he spent several days living at the Russian Consulate.” The United States revoked his passport on June 22nd, yet Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks said “I was traveling with him on our way to Latin America (on the 23rd) when the United States revoked his passport, stranding him in Russia.” Yet another discrepancy.
This set up the media frenzy of the century, as he was unable to leave the airport without a passport. Anatoly Kucherena, his lawyer, told Spiegel Online that while he was stuck in the transit zone at Sheremetevo airport “the only person with him is Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks.”
Wikileaks is a mysterious organization, seemingly constructed around the ego of Julian Assange, who according to former employee James Ball, would do things like “privately promise several thousand Australian dollars to fund Juice News, the makers of humorous pro-WikiLeaks YouTube videos” in 2010 when Wikileaks was struggling to get many donations itself.
Towards the end of that year, Wikileaks threatened that they would release documents on powerful individuals in Russia, and according to their spokesperson, Kristinn Hrafnsson “Russian readers will learn a lot about their country.” An official from the FSB (the successor to the KGB) responded “It’s essential to remember that given the will and the relevant orders, [WikiLeaks] can be made inaccessible forever.”
The documents never came out. Two years later, Julian Assange had his own show on Russia Today, the Kremlin’s West-facing propaganda outlet. Wikileaks even sent a delegation to meet Bashar al-Assad, a President only two major countries support (Russia and Iran). While stuck in in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange stated in a press release that he requested Russian security:
”[H]abría sido la elección de su propio Servicio de Seguridad en el interior de la embajada, llegando a proponer la participación de operadores de nacionalidad rusa.”
They even employ a man who calls himself “Israel Shamir” as their content aggregator in Russia, deciding which cables intercepted leaked from the state department go to which outlets. Hrafnsson confirmed to Swedish Radio: “Yes. Yes, he is associated with us.”
Wikileaks later issued a press release stating: “Israel Shamir has never worked or volunteered for WikiLeaks, in any manner, whatsoever.”
That might have to do with the fact that Shamir fabricated a cable, implicating collusion amongst those who walked out of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech to the United Nations. Shamir even wrote a public love letter to Ahmadinejad on his “reelection.” He is a holocaust denier and has spent most of his life as a professional agitator, spreading conspiracy theories about Jews and the West. He may have even helped Belarus target dissidents during their brutal crackdown in the wake of the 2010 “election.”
Shamir’s son is disgraced journalist Johannes Wahlström – also a holocaust denier. He has written stories based on Wikileaks’ leaks for Aftonbladet, a Swedish tabloid, and produced a documentary about the organization. According to Swedish Radio, Wahlström controls cables in Scandinavia for Wikileaks. Frankly, it’s hard to see how Wikileaks is not under the thumb of the Kremlin. Spiegel Online flatly asked Snowden’s lawyer if he had been “taken under the wing of Russian intelligence,” and Kucherena responded
“If he had wanted to speak with the agents, he would have contacted them directly. I assume that Wikileaks helped him with the invitation list for the meeting.”
The meeting that Kucherena is alluding to included a press conference at Sheremetyevo airport with various human rights groups present along with officials from the Kremlin. Kucherena himself is an interesting figure, as the phrase “Kremlin connected” typically appears in front of his name in any standard AP or Reuters report. For good reason, he represents deposed Ukrainian President/Putin Puppet Viktor Yanukovych.
Kucherena was born in a small village in now Moldova, serving as a sergeant in the Soviet strategic rocket forces. He then moved to Moscow to become an officer of the traffic police, leveraging that job to enter a correspondence course at the Moscow Legal Institute in 1985, joining the bar in 1993. Kucherena gained fame when he successfully defended Sergei Lisovsky in a case where his client was caught carrying $500,000 in cash out of the presidential administrations headquarters in the middle of Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign.
He represents Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, whom the United States alleges is the mafia boss known as Taiwanchik, a man who has committed many crimes, including the charge of fixing figure skating events at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. The website of Kucherena’s firm lists other prominent Russian clients but also highlights his free consultations for the disadvantaged.
Moscow journalists joke that there are few committees he does not serve on. He sits on the Civic Chamber (which Putin founded in 2005), one of the civic boards attached to the Russian district attorney’s office, the interior ministry, and the Federal Security Service (FSB), as well as being a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. He campaigned for Putin in 2012, telling Echo Moskvy, “I know his work and I see that he is a worthy president.”
Kucherena also leads the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation. According to Putin, it is one of two active Russian NGOs in the West. Critics say the institute is Moscow’s response to human rights organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. The institute published a report on human rights in the United States, and four pages in, the report has an entire section dealing with human rights violations perpetrated by the NSA in which Snowden is the star witness.
John Schindler and Tom Nichols (Team anti-Snowden) battled Jeremy Scahill (co-Founder of The Intercept, and literally on Team Snowden) on Twitter, with the attacks focused on Kucherena. Scahill devolved the argument into making fun of Schindler for having his dick pics leaked on the internet by Russian hackers, but the best defense to Snowden’s FSB lawyer that Scahill could muster is that we do not have the full picture, therefore the truth cannot be ascertained.
Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch also attended Snowden’s meeting in Sheremetyevo airport, and she claims that Kucherena is a “staunch loyalist” to the Kremlin and “he portrays himself and is being portrayed by the Kremlin as an independent actor and one of the pillars of the Russian legal community.” Adding that he’s “one of those figures whom the Kremlin pushes forward when accused of stifling civil society.”
Three days after this meeting, Snowden applied for temporary asylum in Russia. He left the airport two weeks later. It was over. The package had been delivered.
I do not believe that Edward Snowden is a Russian undercover agent sent here to steal secrets. They did not need him to access NSA files. Jeffrey Delisle, the Canadian naval officer already gave away most of the store, along with whatever the Kremlin learns from all the hacking happening as you read this. The Russians were embarrassed as the United States paraded their spies around for the cameras in 2010, and they wanted us to feel some pain too.
Snowden is undoubtedly a libertarian ideologue; he even donated to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. The NSA was committing clear human rights violations, and based off of how Snowden allegedly went about stealing the files (according to Reuters and the NSA), it seems much easier to penetrate NSANet than it should be. He leveraged his system administrator position to get 20 to 25 coworkers send him their passwords, then had a civilian employee give him his PKI (public key infrastructure) certificate that allowed him to access the NSANet, had the civilian employee enter his password in front of him, and poof – Edward Snowden had access to all four levels of NSA security (he denies this version of events). A collision was bound to happen, and the Russians were on the lookout, as John Schindler makes painfully clear:
As a former NSA counterintelligence officer myself, I can share with you the depressing reality that, during the Cold War, the NSA-led Western SIGINT alliance was never not penetrated, somewhere, by Soviet spies. And that’s counting only the moles we know of.
Modern reports corroborate Schindler’s account, as it was revealed in 2010 that that the NSA was hunting for a Russian mole right around the same time the US was kicking out Russian spies. James Bamford, Glenn Greenwald, Der Spiegel, and Bruce Schneier have all said that there is someone else leaking documents. Russia and China hack us every day, and we are no doubt returning the favor en force, while also innovating the battlefield to attack physical targets, as the joint US-Israeli “Stuxnet” hack destroyed vital portions of Iranian nuclear installations. We are in the middle of the first ever global cyberwar, and we got hit.
Snowden bragged about his security clearance on the ArsTechnica forums and made himself a logical target for espionage. He did not need to be “turned.” Slides like this one did more work to turn him than any foreign agent could.
Russians on the inside of the NSA and/or CIA nudged him in certain directions, one of those possibly being his 2008 declaration on ArsTechnica that he had undergone a transformation and was now Wolfking Awesomefox. He took the job at Booz Allen with the sole intention of stealing documents, and given that he had full access to the entire NSANet, it is difficult to question the NSA’s assertion that he stole 99.995% more documents than Glenn Greenwald said he received in Hong Kong.
Perhaps he didn’t. Maybe Snowden only stole 10,000 documents, but opened the door for this other leaker to steal the next 1,690,000 files. Regardless, he had to be under the influence of another entity, as evidenced by his nonsensical choice to flee to Hong Kong. Kevin Egan, a lawyer who has dealt with extradition cases in the city said:
“If I was him, I’d be getting out of here and heading to a sympathetic jurisdiction as fast as possible and certainly before the United States issues a request for his extradition.”
James Fallows of the Atlantic nailed the inherent contradiction of his choice:
Hong Kong is not a sovereign country. It is part of China?—a country that by the libertarian standards Edward Snowden says he cares about is worse, not better, than the United States. China has even more surveillance of its citizens (it has gone very far toward ensuring that it knows the real identity of everyone using the internet); its press is thoroughly government-controlled; it has no legal theory of protection for free speech; and it doesn’t even have national elections. Hong Kong lives a time-limited separate existence, under the “one country, two systems” principle, but in a pinch, it is part of China.
Snowden told the South China Morning Post two weeks after he arrived that “I have faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law.” He does not come off as some master spy capable of completing a plan as brazen as this by himself. He simply seems to be a smart, naïve guy in way over his head. Fleeing to Hong Kong could not have been his choice. It simply does not line up with a single part of his narrative. His handlers forcing him across the Pacific in the face of certain prosecution by the US justice department is a much more logical explanation. “Living” at the Russian consulate puts this saga over the limit of Russian coincidences, and now by definition cannot be coincidental.
What this looks like is a joint Chinese-Russian operation. The Russians pushed Snowden in certain directions up to the leak, and when he needed safe passage and somewhere to lay low, the Chinese would provide it for him. After enough time had passed, the Kremlin came back to get him for good. This simply became bigger than Snowden at some point.
To close the deal, they first sent in their surrogates through Wikileaks to warm him up. Wikileaks may not have originated as an arm of the Kremlin, but financial woes definitely brought in new management, and while the product did not change, their focus clearly did.
After letting him languish in the airport for three weeks, the FSB sent in their closer: Kucharenko. Within a week of meeting Snowden, he had him requesting to apply for asylum in Russia. The outcome of the world’s most notorious human rights activist’s plan landed him in a country that Freedom House classified as “not a free” country, and one that got less free this past year.
The purpose of this operation was to embarrass the US, deteriorate relations in the West, and pick up any additional information the Russians and Chinese did not already have on the NSA. It was mainly a PR stunt, and it worked. Oliver Stone made a movie about it coming out later this year with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Snowden and Nicolas Cage probably screaming at someone in every scene. Stone even bought the rights to Anatoly Kucherena’s “fictional” book (the first of three) about US whistleblower Joshua Cold called “Time of the Octopus,” and Kucherena is one of four people given a writing credit on the Snowden script. This might be the most successful Russian SIGINT operation in history.
The NSA has never been a bigger issue in American politics, and this exploit not only changed people’s perceptions, but their behavior as well.
After the Guardian dropped the first two stories on the NSA’s collection of phone records and the debacle that was PRISM, five of the next seven stories released up until Snowden’s birthday party at the Russian consulate in Hong Kong had to do with spy agencies hacking other countries. Isn’t that the whole reason everyone has SIGINT in the first place?
The leaks portrayed Sweden as a stooge for the US-UK intelligence alliance, which they vociferously denied. Another leak showed that Israeli commandos killed a Syrian general who was actively involved in arming and training Hezbollah as well as nuclear proliferation…which is relevant to US civil liberties how? Details about the equivalent of the NSA’s Navy Seals were even revealed. Would we be as tolerant if the proportionate amount was reported about our actual Navy Seals? I doubt it.
The leaks really only hit Western countries. You mean to tell me that 1.7 million documents were obtained from an intelligence agency, and there was no dirt on the Russians or Chinese? Come on.
Really the only story in the leaks involving Russia, China, or Iran that got any traction was a release from Iran’s propaganda arm, the Fars news agency alleging that the US is run by tall white aliens; the same ones who controlled the Nazis. Snowden said this to Wired while refuting the NSA’s claim that he took 1.7 million documents, but it speaks to a larger truth:
“I think they think there’s a smoking gun in there that would be the death of them all politically. The fact that the government’s investigation failed—that they don’t know what was taken and that they keep throwing out these ridiculous huge numbers—implies to me that somewhere in their damage assessment they must have seen something that was like, ‘Holy shit.’ And they think it’s still out there.”