Book Reviews

"The Snowden Operation: Inside the West's Greatest Intelligence Disaster," by Edward Lucas

By Book Review Editor
Tuesday, February 11, 2014, 7:38 AM

Published by Amazon Kindle Single (2014)

Reviewed by Benjamin Wittes

Over the past few weeks, several members of congressional intelligence committees have intimated that Edward Snowden might have been an active espionage agent. The administration has not publicly supported the theory, though it hasn't definitively ruled it out. Some of the circumstances are, indeed, suspicious---most importantly that Snowden ended up first in Hong Kong and then in Moscow.

Comes now Edward Lucas, senior editor at the Economist, with a twist on the Snowden-as-spy hypothesis: Snowden was a "useful idiot," Lucas claims, a dupe of Russian intelligence whether he was an actual agent or not. Lucas has written an Amazon single entitled, "The Snowden Operation: Inside the West's Greatest Intelligence Disaster," which advances the theory that Snowden's actions damaged Western allies in five ways: weakening American-European alliances, harming the security relations among them, corroding Western public trust in their security systems, diminishing the West in the eyes of the world, and paralyzing Western intelligence agencies. "All these are bad," writes Lucas in his introduction. "And as it happens, they are also all Kremlin priorities: if Vladimir Putin were writing a 'to-do' list for his officials, it would have all these five points on it."

Lucas's essay is at its strongest when he is describing the damage Snowden did and arguing against the press's adoption of the Greenwald-Snowden-Gellman-Poitras heroic portrayal of the leaker. Lucas has an unusually refined sense of intelligence work, its value, and what threatens it. And his understanding of the relationship among the Western allies is keen. So is his understanding of journalism and why we should not take seriously the claims of journalists to have protected from adversary intelligence services the information Snowden took. The result is that Lucas gives an excellent and clear-headed overview of what was valuable to the public in the Snowden leaks, what was damaging about the leaks, why we cannot assume that the undisclosed portions of the cache of documents eluded Russian intelligence operatives, and why the value of the leaks does not remotely justify the damage they did.

Indeed, through the first four sections of his essay, I was entirely with Lucas. The damage is, indeed, grave, far graver than many observers wish to see, and the difficulty of talking about the damage without compounding it means that a lot has gone unsaid about its scope and severity. This, in turn, has provided those who wish to ignore the costs with a convenient hear-no-evil, see-no-evil excuse for their disbelief. Lucas is certainly correct that the damage has served the interests of foreign adversaries, including but not limited to Russia. One does not need to be a spy to serve the interests of spies. Snowden has without question done that. For this material alone, The Snowden Operation is well worth a read, one of the better and more cogent high-altitude discussions of the entire affair that I have read.

But Lucas, in the final section of his essay---provocatively entitled "Our Man in Hawaii"---goes what for me is a bridge too far. He does not quite allege that Snowden was a Russian agent. He acknowledges that the sort of "links and opportunities" he describes "do not prove that any of the [Snowden group] are conscious agents of the Russian state, and I am not accusing them of that. . . . But they do not need to be. . . . It would not be hard for Russian intelligence to conceal an intelligence officer or agent of influence somewhere in the background, or for that person to broker an introduction between Snowden and his future allies." Lucas's case even for this is, as he admits, entirely speculative. But he hypothesizes that Russian intelligence had its eye on Snowden, and he hypothesizes as well about "how they could have approached him" using a false flag operation:

If the Russians indeed spotted Snowden as a potential target for recruitment, the best false flag approach would have been in the guise of campaigners for privacy and government openness. They would have been patient; carefully massaging his ego and making him feel that he was a lone crusader for justice, whose vindication would lie outside the system, not inside it. There is no proof of this. But it would certainly help explain what happened later.

It would, indeed, and Lucas draws some interesting historical parallels to the way that Soviet intelligence manipulated the anti-nuclear movement. But still, at the end of the day, the key sentence is Lucas's concession that "There is no proof of this." For my part, I'll stick with what we know for sure. I'm curious about the involvement of foreign intelligence services in the whole affair, but I don't think we're in a position yet to draw even tentative or speculative conclusions about it.