Is Snowden a Russian Operative? An Interview with Edward Lucas

January 29, 2014
A rare photograph of Edward Snowden in Russia.

As the international press continues to publish disclosures on the National Security Agency, attention has begun to shift slightly to the figure who stole 1.7 million national security documents. Edward Snowden’s whereabouts in Russia, how he attained asylum there, or what the real public interest is of leaking information about Swedish and Norwegian espionage against the government of Vladimir Putin are now prompting questions about the term “whistleblower”. Rep. Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, provocatively told NBC’s “Meet the Press” last week, “I believe there’s a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow.” Snowden denies he’s a Russian spy, calling the charge “absurd.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein says that she has “no information” to substantiate such an allegation. Meanwhile, John Schindler, a former NSA analyst and now a professor at the Naval War College, says that Snowden is better described as a “defector.”

Edward Lucas certainly doesn’t believe that Snowden is any kind of whistleblower.

In his new e-book, titled The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster, Lucas, the international editor of The Economist and the author of Deceptions: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West, makes the case that not only are Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA wildly mischaracterized in the media, but that the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor’s avowed motives for stealing U.S. national security secrets do not scan. As Lucas wrote this week in an essay for Politico, “[Whistleblowers] must have clear and convincing evidence of abuse. Publishing the information must not pose a disproportionate threat to public safety. And the leak must be as limited in scope and scale as possible. Snowden failed all three of these tests.”

So what does Lucas believe is the true story behind the conventionally accepted one about the greatest intelligence breach in U.S. history?

The Interpreter’s editor-in-chief Michael Weiss interviewed Lucas about his new e-book via email.

Michael Weiss: Chapter Five of your book, “Our Man in Hawaii,” is one of the most interesting, and also the likeliest to get you into trouble with the die-hard Snowdenistas. You make a very compelling albeit admittedly speculative case that Snowden, while he was working for the CIA under the cover of attache at the U.S. mission to the UN in Geneva, he would have been an attractive recruit for Russian intelligence. He exhibited signs of disillusionment with his work on the Ars Technica forum, for instance, the use of which was itself a stark break with CIA protocol. How likely is it that the Chekists spotted him, and if they did, what methods might they have used to lure him into their fold, with or without his cognizance or consent?

Edward Lucas: To me this is the most likely explanation of what happened. We know that the Russians target people like Snowden. The actions he took are the sort of thing they would very much like. Now he’s in Moscow where we can’t ask him about it. If they did approach him, they would have concentrated chiefly on developing and exploiting his psychological weaknesses, massaging his ego and corroding his bonds of loyalty to his employer. Once he was fully detached psychologically from the NSA, they would have put him in touch with someone from the Wikileaks or hacker milieu. The effect from their point of view would be like a chemical reaction. No need to do anything much, just stand back and watch.

Michael Weiss: You refer to Активные мероприятия, or KGB “active measures” and say that the NSA releases thus far bear all the hallmarks of this form of tradecraft. Explain what these are and how they work.

EL: Traditional espionage is about gathering intelligence. There is a big difference between that and special operations (blowing things up, killing people and generally making things happen). However big intelligence services (CIA, MI6 and Russians) sometimes do both. Russians are particularly good at this. They use classic intelligence means to discover weaknesses, and then “active measures” to exploit them. Sources and active agents would normally be run in parallel in order to preserve operational security. So if Snowden’s job was to steal and leak, then we should assume that other Russian agents in the NSA are there to fulfil other intelligence requirements.

MW: Several journalists who’ve covered this story claim that their own US intelligence sources deny that Snowden was ever run by the Russians or even that the FSB/SVR played a role landing him in the country. And Snowden and his defenders vehemently deny that he gave up any secrets to the Kremlin owing to his own digital security safeguards. This contrasts sharply with what Russian security service experts such as Andrei Soldatov, or, indeed, former employees such as Oleg Kalugin and Yuri Felshtinsky all say publicly about how Russian intelligence works. What do you make of this disparity in assessments? Is the CIA trying to save face by leaking false information to the media?

EL: I just don’t know. I have no special inside knowledge of this. I assume that the aim of the agencies now is to spread confusion in order to minimize the damage. If so, they are doing a good job.

MW: What’s the role of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in the Snowden saga, and what is their connection to the Russian government?

EL: The connection between Assange and Russia, and between Wikileaks and the Snowdenistas. It deserves a lot more scrutiny.

MW: Who is Jacob Appelbaum and what’s his involvement in all this?

EL: Ditto. I have repeatedly approached Appelbaum for comment but not received any reply.  From his public appearances he seems to be the most politically extreme of the leading Snowdenistas.

MW: One of the enduring mysteries of how and when Snowden started stealing national security secrets is when journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras first made contact with Snowden or when they began receiving documents from him. You cite our own Cathy Fitzpatrick ( who has also written a book about Snowden), who catalogues five different dates given by Greenwald for when this occurred. Then there was Poitras’ interesting disclosure to the New York Times Magazine that she herself didn’t want to say when she got Snowden’s documents for fear of any subsequent legal consequences this might entrain. What legal consequences can she mean? And what do you make of the variable and furtive nature of this timeline?

EL: I assume that some of them are worried about potential prosecution and not being able to travel freely. But the evasiveness about the first contact between Snowden and his friends is one of the main oddities in the case. I hope that further investigation will bring some results.

MW: One thing that seems very fascinating yet unexamined by most observers: Where has Lindsey Mills, Snowden’s now ex-girlfriend, gone off to? If she’s still in the U.S., then presumably she’ll have been questioned by U.S. authorities about Snowden’s movements and behavior in the months leading up to his flight to Hong Kong. Is her disappearance from public life (she shut down her blog after the story broke) an indication of anything to you?

EL: I assume that Ms. Mills has been cooperating fully with the authorities. In her shoes, I would be furious with the way I was treated. Her parents have said that she was left penniless and stranded by what any normal person would term Snowden’s callous and cowardly disappearance. I tried to reach her for comment but did not receive a response.