By William Tucker
In the counterintelligence community there is an unspoken truth, no matter how thorough the background investigation there will always be people who betray the special trust that the government has placed in them. The motives for doing so vary, but the fact remains – once classified information is improperly released it can be used to harm either the U.S., allied nations, or both. Of interesting note is a study conducted by the Defense Personnel Security Research Center (PERSEREC) on espionage conducted by American citizens since 1945. The study found that ideology has been the prime motivating factor since 1990. This is clearly demonstrated when considering some rather famous espionage cases of late. Individuals such as Ana Montes, Kendall Myers, Chi Mak, Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden are all excellent examples of this trend. The Snowden case is still relatively new and a lot of details remain unknown, but thus far it appears rather strange.
Because espionage cases typically involve sensitive or classified material there will be facts of the case that won’t make sense. As the Washington Post points out, there are several gaps in Snowden’s story that are problematic. Snowden is a high school dropout and may have had useful knowledge in a technical field that led to his employment, but the claim that he worked “deep cover” for the CIA in Switzerland is rather absurd. Additionally, Snowden’s description of his job responsibilities don’t match internal job descriptions. Another anomaly that deserves scrutiny is his contact with the journalists involved in publishing the story. The Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald claimed that he had been working with Snowden since February, but Snowden didn’t gain employment with Booz Allen Hamilton until March of this year. This admission from Greenwald creates several questions as to Snowden’s access to classified before his Booz Allen stint. Where did Snowden have access to classified? How was it removed from the facility? Did the journalists involved push Snowden to leak the details? Did Snowden seek employment with Booz Allen just to access classified material? If this is the case, then its hard to buy off on Snowden’s claim of having altruistic motives.
Then there’s Snowden’s bizarre choice of fleeing to Hong Kong. Though Hong Kong is a Special Administrative District of the People’s Republic of China, it does maintain a quasi-independent political system. Regardless, it is still a part of China and Beijing does have an intelligence presence on the island which has served as a conduit for defections and other intelligence operations abroad. We don’t yet have sufficient evidence that Snowden was engaged in spying for a foreign interest, but the timing of the leak coincides with the meeting of Xi and Obama to discuss cyber issues. These two facts may be coincidental, but it will certainly be a topic of discussion among investigators. It is possible that China is using Snowden and this leak, either directly or indirectly, to cover collection activities elsewhere within the U.S. intelligence community, but that’s just speculation at this point. The ensuing damage assessment and investigation is likely to cover this and other similar scenarios, however.
The bottom-line is that this leak will damage U.S. intelligence collection methods, but it is highly unlikely to stop them. Communications that use the internet are just too vital for any intelligence activity to ignore. If anything, this leak will likely force the intelligence community to become more security obsessed and introverted. Thus, it will become more hostile to change and demands of transparency by both Congress and the Executive.
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