It seems that Russia and China have cracked encrypted portions of the files and have uncovered the identities of deep cover British and American agents (3) in both of those countries. The revelation has led intelligence agencies to withdraw their agents before they are picked up and interrogated.
When Snowden fled from the United States, he presented himself as a whistleblower who uncovered what he believed to be abuses inflicted on the American people by the NSA and the CIA spying on them, gathering phone call and Internet information, and doing all of these things absent the usual protections the American legal system provides.
Newsweek recently recounted (4) this aspect of Snowden’s feat in an approving tone, noting that the revelations led to changes in the Patriot Act, now called the Freedom Act, that restrained, to some degree, American ability to conduct spying on American citizens.
Charges Against Snowden
Snowden is currently under criminal indictment in the United States for theft of government property and for two counts of violating the Espionage Act. Each indictment carries with it a prison term of 10 years.
Despite calls that he be given amnesty, the United States government is quite firm that Snowden must face the music in a court of law. Snowden remains in Russia, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
Public opinion about Snowden is somewhat ambivalent. Some consider him a hero for revealing domestic spying activities and for sparking a renewed debate on privacy vs. security. Others consider him a traitor for revealing classified information to Russia and China, two countries which are not overly friendly to the United States.
Even in an era in which electronic eavesdropping is an integral part of intelligence gathering, human intelligence remains a crucial part of spy craft. The CIA defines (5) human intelligence, or “humint”, as the following:
- Clandestine acquisition of photography, documents, and other material
- Overt collection by people overseas
- Debriefing of foreign nationals and U.S. citizens who travel abroad
- Official contacts with foreign governments (5)
Crippling Intelligence Operations
The most dangerous and often most productive part of human intelligence involves the recruitment and development of people who are called “assets” by clandestine agents overseas. Such assets could be anyone from an officer of a rival intelligence service, a member of another country’s military, or someone who is part of a foreign government’s bureaucracy. They have to have access to classified material and they have to be susceptible to being “turned” in order to be agreeable to passing that material along.
In the movies, agents often develop assets by appeals to idealism or, on occasion, blackmail. But intelligence agents more often than not use financial incentives to get what they want.
Idealism and blackmail appeal to an asset’s emotions, which can be changeable and need constant cultivation. Money appeals to a person’s greed, which is often more reliable. Also, an asset who accepts money for secrets is by definition open to blackmail if he or she has a change of heart.
Snowden seems to have single-handedly crippled the human intelligence operations being conducted by the United States and Great Britain in Russia and China, two countries which recently have been engaged in imperialist adventures.
Not only has he placed the lives of agents and their assets at risk, he has inhibited the ability of the West to find out what Moscow and Beijing are up to. He has thus damaged his brand as an idealistic whistleblower and may deserve another name entirely, that of traitor.