Is Edward Snowden the World’s Dumbest Spy?

by Freddie deBoer

Michael B. Kelley thinks he might be! Such a fine line between espionage mastermind and espionage incompetent. Kelley does a deep dive into Snowden’s interviews and, with the help of some very, very willful reading and powerful cognitive dissonance, concludes that Snowden has distributed essential intelligence to those commies in Russia and China.

Well, actually, that’s not quite true. Kelley admits that he doesn’t know whether Snowden has done any such thing. He just waits until the long piece’s third-to-last paragraph to make that admission. “Fifteen months after his epic heist, we still don’t know if Snowden was telling the truth when he said he destroyed the tier 3 documents between June 12 (the SCMP leak) and June 23 (the flight to Moscow).” I would call that a fairly important qualifier! I think you’ve buried your lede here, Michael. I mean, if you’re writing a piece about how you think somebody leaked something, but you have a paragraph where you admit that you have no evidence that he in fact leaked that something, you might want to put that up near the top. Just a thought.

Kelley is part of the professional Edward Snowden skepticism circuit, which has kept a lot of “National Security Experts” gainfully employed. (Stimulus!) But Kelley isn’t a part of the knuckle-dragging, “hang his lifeless carcass from the Pentagon flagpole” school of anti-Snowden rhetoric. Instead, he’s part of another class of Snowden critics, the Snowden concern trolls. It’s carrying water for the national security state, just for the sophisticates. In this genre, you cast your aspersions on Snowden, intimate he’s a Russian or Chinese spy, or that he’s been duped by Russian or Chinese spies, or that he’s so deluded he doesn’t know he’s fallen into the trap of the Russians or Chinese. But you do it all while hemming and hawing and giving a little sugar to the people who don’t think we should have a limitless domestic surveillance system. You undermine him and what he’s done, but you do it with a veneer of journalistic objectivity.

But I said that Kelley must think Snowden is the world’s dumbest spy. Here’s Kelley’s thesis: Snowden stole three types of documents, Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. The first two have a legitimate whistle blowing purpose, and Kelley concedes that someone could steal them out of legitimate civil liberties concerns. But Tier 3, in Kelley’s view, has no legitimate white blowing value, and so the only reason to steal them is to give them to the Russians or the Chinese. Or sell them to the Russians or the Chinese. And Snowden has wound up in… drum roll please… China and Russia.

Now, as Kelley is perfectly aware, it would have been incredibly easy for Snowden to have simply gotten the Tier 3 files and given them to a foreign government. For an encryption and communications expert like Snowden, it would have been no great difficulty to send those files securely online… or, you know, send a flash drive via UPS. That’s part of the great scandal here: that somebody like Snowden had such carte blanche to explore the domestic surveillance files of the NSA, and that he was able to walk out of there with so much information without anyone noticing. Indeed: were I interested in keeping the NSA’s secrets, I’d be a lot more worried about all of the other contractors I don’t know about than I am about the one I do know about. So since he knows Snowden could have easily taken the info and run without ever telling the world, he has to come up with a version where Snowden either legitimately wanted to blow the whistle on the NSA and then also wanted to give intelligence to the Russians and China so he fled there, or where Snowden acted like a whistle blower just to hurt the USA’s legitimacy and fled to Russia and China to share the Tier 3 documents with them.

Both of these are really dumb. If he was both legitimately interested in spreading the word about the NSA’s illegal activities but wanted to also help America’s antagonists, whether for money or any other motive, then he’d have hurt the value of the Tier 3 documents by going public. When you tell the world that you’ve gotten your hands on some explosive documents, and you tell the government agency you took them from what you took, then those files become much less valuable. The espionage value of intelligence that the other side knows you’ve shared is far lower. And if the whistle blowing is all a con as part of an elaborate scheme to hurt the United States, hiding out in China and Russia is the very worst thing he could have done. Does Michael Kelley really think that the Chinese and Russian intelligence services are that bad at their jobs? If this was all some elaborate plan to discredit the United States, would Russia’s spy agencies really say to Snowden, “make sure you hide out in China and Russia– that’ll  add to your credibility with the American people”? How dumb would they and he have to be, if that was the plan? Indeed, the fact that Snowden ended up in those countries makes it much less likely he’s a spy. If he were a spy, he’d have fled someplace way less suspicious.

Given that, by his own admission, Kelley has no evidence that Snowden shared damaging intelligence materials with any other foreign governments, and given that if he were a spy, he’d be doing a terrible job of it, I conclude that in fact Snowden is who he says he is: a whistle blower, one who fled to China and then Russia because he was on the run from an American government that would like very much to throw him in some closet somewhere, preferably in a friendly dictatorship where he could be tortured. Was it a good idea to go to China in the first place? I have no idea. I’ve never been on the run from the world’s most powerful country. And I have no idea what conditions Snowden was under when he grabbed those documents, if he had much choice, or what was on his mind. I do know that he’s in Russia because he’s been trapped there by our government, and that if he’s a spy, he’s gotta be the world’s worst.