That’s the possibility raised by Edward Jay Epstein in a (paywalled) Wall Street Journal op-ed. Epstein offers some new evidence for his theory. In particular he says that NSA investigators now know that Snowden’s tactics included breaking into two dozen compartments using forged or stolen passwords. Once there, Snowden loosed an automated “spider” with instructions to scrape the compartments for particular information. In most cases, US officials have said, the data Snowden took was overwhelmingly of military and intelligence value to our adversaries and had little or nothing to do with privacy or whistleblowing.
It’s entirely possible that Snowden is a spy. But it’s also possible that he stole the military data to make sure he could find a safe foreign haven after his disclosures. That would fit the pattern of his compromises over the past year. Dozens of recent Snowden leaks have revealed nothing about “mass surveillance” — but they have consistently advanced Russian geopolitical interests.
In support of the “documents for asylum” theory, remember that, during his unsuccessful campaign to stay in Hong Kong, Snowden was quick to display stolen documents detailing the Chinese computers NSA had hacked. Here’s the South China Morning Post from June 13, 2013:
Snowden said that according to unverified documents seen by the Post, the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland since 2009. None of the documents revealed any information about Chinese military systems, he said.
One of the targets in [Hong Kong], according to Snowden, was Chinese University and public officials, businesses and students in the city. The documents also point to hacking activity by the NSA against mainland targets.
Snowden believed there had been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland.
Interestingly, now that Snowden has lost his bid for haven in the Chinese-dominated city, he’s stopped leaking information about NSA’s hacking of Chinese computers.
Epstein argues that Snowden’s whistle-blowing was just a cover for espionage. Maybe so, but there’s at least one hole in his argument. “Contrary to Mr. Snowden’s account,” Epstein writes,
the document he stole about the NSA’s domestic surveillance couldn’t have been part of any whistleblowing plan when he transferred to Booz Allen Hamilton in March of 2013. Why? Among other reasons, because the order he took was only issued by the FISA court on April 26, 2013.
The problem for this claim is that the April 26 order was just one in a long line of 90-day FISA court orders. (Here’s one from April of 2011, for example.) Snowden could easily have been motivated by those earlier orders, even though he ultimately stole the most recent one. In fact he has said that “the breaking point,” when he finally decided to reveal the program, was DNI Clapper’s “least untruthful answer” to Sen. Wyden’s question about mass collection in March of 2013.
That doesn’t make Snowden a truth-teller. He was almost certainly lying when he claimed he didn’t steal passwords from his co-workers. And if he was watching Sen. Wyden in March 2013 as he claims, then he must have known that Wyden’s question was part of the senator’s years-long campaign to end the Patriot Act interpretation that sustained NSA’s program. For several years, the senator had been making coded attacks on the FISA court’s interpretation of section 215. Examples here, here, here, and here. Anyone who knew about the NSA program, and that included Snowden, would have had no trouble understanding what Sen. Wyden was complaining about.
That’s important because Snowden has tried to portray himself as a whistleblower with nowhere to go to challenge a plainly unlawful program. But if he followed Sen. Wyden’s campaign, he knew that there already was a debate about the program, and at the highest levels of government. He also knew that the program had been ruled lawful and that Sen. Wyden had not yet persuaded his colleagues to end it.
Snowden revealed classified information, in short, not because he lacked an outlet for his complaints but because he didn’t like the decisions that the executive, congressional, and judicial branches had made.
So the best case for Snowden is that he’s an egoist who thinks his views should triumph over the country’s leadership — that he leaked classified documents not to start the debate but to end it.
The worst case is that he’s a spy.
And in between is the theory I find most plausible, at least today: He’s an egoist who wanted to kill the program — but without paying too heavy a personal price. So he stole all the other secrets in hopes that they would give America’s adversaries an incentive to protect him.
And so far, they have.