I’ve closely followed the saga of Edward Snowden from the moment the former CIA and NSA IT contractor grabbed the global limelight with both hands back on June 12, 2013 by appearing in the Chinese media, exposing American government secrets on a scale nobody had ever done before.
I insisted from the outset that Snowden was not the whistleblower he claimed to be, rather an attention-seeking narcissist, and that certainly once he landed in Moscow on June 23, 2013—and quite possibly before—he was in bed with Russian intelligence. Moreover, Snowden’s 1.5 million stolen documents were nearly all about NSA foreign intelligence and Pentagon military matters—not domestic surveillance. In short, the Snowden saga as presented to the public by Ed and his media enablers was a fantasy.
Now, more than three years later, my position—which garnered me criticism and epic amounts of social media trolling—has been vindicated by several sources, including the U.S. Congress. Oliver Stone’s apologia-as-film about Snowden has just opened, to decidedly mixed reviews, and its premiere has been marred by the overdue intrusion of reality on this Moscow fable. Stone has a long history of making “truthy” movies based on Kremlin propaganda, and his latest sticks with that dubious pattern.
I’ve taken the Snowden debacle personally, in no small part because when I worked in NSA counterintelligence, it was obvious that something like Snowden was bound to happen. By ignoring basic security, by outsourcing core missions to greedy defense contractors, by allowing the security clearance process to fall apart—and above all by oversharing sensitive information with people who had no “need to know” as the spies say—NSA and our whole Intelligence Community created the circumstances that made Snowden possible.
None of this is to deny the traitor’s agency: Ed did all this, willfully. Yet NSA is every bit as culpable as Snowden for this historic debacle, for ignoring years of warnings about security that predicted exactly what came to pass when Snowden stole grandly and fled to China, then Russia, where he remains. I, along with others, warned NSA years ago that it was flirting with counterintelligence disaster, and the agency was “just one asshole away” from the security abyss. Eventually that asshole was going to show up. He did, as actuarially he was bound to. His name just happened to be Ed Snowden.
What the public learned over the last week has fundamentally changed the debate on Snowden. There’s no going back for fabulists who accept the Kremlin’s cover story about Snowden. Ed’s coordinated propaganda campaign centered on “his” movie, including a plea for a presidential pardon that’s been backed by NGOs and celebrities galore, has been blown apart by the truth finally getting out.
First, we have the vivid account of Steven Bay, who had the hard luck of being Ed’s supervisor when he fled his NSA contractor job in Hawaii in the spring of 2013, only to wind up under Vladimir Putin’s roof a few weeks later. Bay’s telling of the story is balanced and utterly damning.
The Snowden his supervisor knew bears little resemblance to the “Saint Ed” image the media has fed the public for years. Bay’s account portrays a dishonest and devious junior analyst, an IT sysadmin who recently had been promoted into serious intelligence work—and it wasn’t going well. Snowden was having problems with co-workers and supervisors.
Moreover, Snowden really didn’t know anything about the Top Secret NSA programs he exposed to the world. Even the details of alleged NSA domestic surveillance—the cornerstone of Ed’s crusade—were beyond his limited grasp. As Bay explains:
All of the “domestic collection” stuff that he revealed, he never had access to that. So he didn’t understand the oversight and compliance, he didn’t understand the rules for handling it, and he didn’t understand the processing of it.
In other words, Snowden’s claim that he discovered spying on Americans and was so appalled he felt compelled to blow the whistle, is simply a fabrication. Ed decided to steal classified information long before he knew anything detailed about signals intelligence. Having spoken to several senior NSA officials about what Snowden really had access to, and when, I can confirm the veracity of Steven Bay’s story.
That said, Bay’s account is downright polite compared to what we’ve learned from the long-awaited Congressional report on the Snowden debacle. For over two years, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (the HPSCI for short, pronounced “hip-see” by Beltway cognoscenti) conducted an investigation of what happened, how and why. Its findings irrevocably shatter the claims of Snowden and his media enablers.
He was a ‘problem’ employee of the kind known to every HR department everywhere.
It bears noting that the HPSCI’s report is fully bi-partisan. Moreover, all committee members signed a letter they sent to President Obama last week, pleading with him not to pardon the fugitive with these words: “Snowden is not a patriot. He is not a whistleblower. He is a criminal.” Considering that Democrats and Republicans in Congress can barely agree that water is wet these days, it’s something special they put together a bipartisan report that actually has teeth.
How sharp the HPSCI’s teeth are with Snowden. Let’s start with the comments of the committee chair, Rep. Devin Nunes:
Edward Snowden is no hero—he’s a traitor who willfully betrayed his colleagues and his country. He put our servicemembers and the American people at risk after perceived slights by his superiors. In light of his long list of exaggerations and outright fabrications detailed in this report, no one should take him at his word.
No less scathing were the comments of Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee’s ranking member:
Snowden has long portrayed himself as a truth-seeking whistleblower whose actions were designed solely to defend privacy, and whose disclosures did no harm to the country’s security. The Committee’s Review—a product of two years of extensive research—shows his claims to be self-serving and false, and the damage done to our national security to be profound.
Perhaps the harshest words came from Lynn Westmoreland, who heads the HPSCI’s NSA and Cybersecurity subcommittee:
Edward Snowden made a decision that did more damage to U.S. national security than any other individual in our nation’s history. His actions harmed our relationships around the world, endangered American soldiers in warzones, and reduced our allies’ collective ability to prevent terrorist attacks.
The report itself lays waste to the lies proffered by Team Snowden. Those lies have been laid thickly and require extensive unpacking. Snowden, whom the HPSCI terms “a serial exaggerator and fabricator,” claims he tried but failed to join U.S. Army Special Forces due to two broken legs. In reality, he washed out of basic training due to shin splints. He systematically lied about his actual work and job titles at both CIA and NSA. Snowden advanced his career by padding his resume, lying to supervisors, and acing an NSA test by stealing the answers in advance.
Moreover, Snowden’s account of why he stole secrets is just one more lie, as the HPSCI demonstrates. The real motivation was due to problems at work caused by Snowden’s own arrogance and persistent inability to play well with others. He was a “problem” employee of the kind known to every HR department everywhere. The report notes that Snowden began illegally downloading classified information, with the intent of leaking it, shortly after being reprimanded at work for his misconduct.
Snowden subsequently claimed he was moved by moral outrage to steal secrets by the mendacious Congressional testimony of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, in March 2013. In fact, the HPSCI discovered that Ed’s thefts began eight months before Clapper’s testimony.
This report makes clear that Snowden was never a whistleblower, having taken advantage of none of the numerous legal avenues for whistleblowers in the Intelligence Community. He even failed required NSA training on how to handle sensitive signals intelligence that may impact the privacy of Americans—then claimed that the course had been rigged to be overly difficult! (Having taken that training myself, it’s not difficult, at all—for anybody who’s paying attention.)
The HPSCI’s essential finding on Snowden’s unprecedented theft and compromise of 1.5 million classified documents from NSA, the Intelligence Community, and the Defense Department, bears careful reading:
Snowden caused tremendous damage to national security, and the vast majority of the documents he stole have nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests—they instead pertain to military, defense, and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries.
The HPCSI’s three-page Unclassified executive summary will remain the final word on the Snowden case, at least until Washington sees fit to release the committee’s full report, which is 36 pages in length and highly classified, since it dives deep on exactly what damage Ed wrought on the United States and our close allies. An Intelligence Community senior official who saw some of what went into the HPSCI’s full report termed it “utterly devastating” and “astounding, like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
In response to the Unclassified report’s release, Snowden and his defenders have reacted hysterically, accusing Congress of industrial-scale lying and being part of some mysterious, bipartisan conspiracy to smear Ed and the media enablers who made him a global celebrity.
In truth, the only conspiracy here was perpetrated by Snowden and his hangers-on, who stole and compromised a staggering amount of secrets belonging to America and our closest allies. That the Snowden Operation, as I and others have termed it, benefitted Russia and other states not friendly to the democratic West, is now so obvious that you have to maintain willful blindness to not notice.
The Kremlin recently admitted that Snowden has cooperated with Russia’s intelligence services, although it was evident from Ed’s appearance in Moscow over three years ago that he was collaborating. Every single Western intelligence defector to Russia since 1917 has talked to the Kremlin’s spy services—such is the essential nature of defection—so there was never any reason to think Snowden would be different. Those who continue to insist Ed is a special case, unsullied by being in Putin’s Russia for years, are free to do so, but ought to be treated like advocates for chupacabras, unicorns and alien mind control theories.
In truth, Snowden was never any sort of super-spy for the Kremlin. Although the Snowden Operation inflicted colossal damage on Western intelligence, Ed himself was never more than a patsy, a dupe. As I’ve previously explained, his actual role, aside from propaganda, was to provide cover for the real Russian mole—or moles—lurking for years inside NSA, undetected.
All the same, Snowden’s real-world impacts are serious. His revelations have helped terrorists who wage jihad against the West. There’s no doubt among real experts that Ed’s massive compromise helped the Islamic State. Given the wave of terrorist attacks in the New York area this weekend, which appears to be a jihadist plot, Americans may be losing their patience with fake whistleblowers who hide in Moscow while aiding jihadist killers.
Ed’s myth-making movie isn’t off to a promising start, which may be an indication of the public’s mood. Its first weekend at the box office was a disappointment, just $8 million, making it the worst-performing major film ever by Oliver Stone.
As for Ed Snowden, he isn’t going anywhere. In light of the HPSCI’s scathing report and plea to the White House, President Obama will not be issuing him any pardon—and neither will any future president who doesn’t wish to incur the wrath of both the Intelligence Community and Congress.
If Snowden wants a pardon, he first needs to come home to face trial—which is something Ed shows no signs of doing. Not to mention that his life under Putin’s roof isn’t exactly free, and there’s no indication the Kremlin will let him leave Russia in the first place.
Few American defectors to Moscow ever return home. Most fade away in a haze of vodka and regret. Several have died under “mysterious circumstances” while others have disappeared altogether, presumed dead, whereabouts unknown. There’s no reason to think the Russian fate that Ed Snowden has chosen for himself will be any different.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.