Snowden’s revelations have been damaging to be sure. He has exposed details of U.S. intelligence collection efforts against China, including the fact that the NSA had infiltrated the computer networks of Tsinghua University in Beijing, which houses one of China’s six major backbone networks through whichInternet data for millions of Chinese citizens pass. He has exposed our intelligence collection efforts on our allies, including the fact that the United States bugged the offices of the European Union and infiltrated its internal computer networks. He has revealed to a German newsmagazine that the NSA has been using data from Internet hubs in south and west Germany to monitor Internet traffic to Syria and Mali — two hotbeds of al-Qaeda activity — tipping off our enemies to these vital U.S. intelligence operations.
Of course, this is all in addition to broader leaks about details of two NSA spying programs — revelations that, according to the Associated Press, have U.S. intelligence agencies “scrambling to salvage their surveillance of al-Qaida and other terrorists who are working frantically to change how they communicate.”
But for U.S. intelligence officials, the far bigger concern is what foreign intelligence services are learning from Snowden that has not made the front pages of the world’s newspapers.
Snowden is reportedly carrying four laptop computers loaded with top-secret U.S. intelligence documents. No doubt the spy agencies in the countries he is visiting have been feasting on the reams of classified information in his possession.
Think that China failed to access every single one of the files on Snowden’s computers during his month-long stay in Hong Kong before letting him escape to Russia? Not a chance. Snowden publicly confirmed that he possessed top-secret intelligence on America’s espionage against China. Beijing was not letting him leave without getting every last byte of it.
Even if Snowden did not intentionally cooperate, the People’s Liberation Army has one of the most sophisticated cyber-hacking operations in the world. PLA hackers have broken into U.S. Defense Department computers and stolen the designs for more than two dozen major weapons systems. Think they can’t hack four laptops sitting in a hotel room in sovereign Chinese territory? Whatever Snowden had in his possession when he entered Hong Kong is now in the possession of Chinese intelligence.
Now, it’s Russia’s turn. Snowden has been in the “transit area” of the Moscow airport for more than a week. As with China, he has publicly confirmed that he has top-secret documents detailing U.S. cyber-espionage against Moscow. He already revealed that the NSA intercepted the communications of then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and that the NSA had discovered “a change in the way Russian leadership signals have been normally transmitted.”
The FSB (the agency formerly known as the KGB) isn’t going to let Snowden leave Russia before it learns everything else he knows about U.S. espionage efforts against Russia — and get any other NSA documents in his possession. Like China, Russia has advanced cyberwarfare capabilities. If Snowden took his laptops with him to Moscow, imaging the contents would be a walk in the park for the FSB.
That’s not all. Snowden has reportedly given copies of the full archives of all the classified information in his possession to news organizations as a precautionary measure in case anything happens to him. Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald recently bragged that “The majority of revelations that are significant have yet to be made.” One can only imagine what foreign intelligence services are doing to the computers of Greenwald and others who claim to have received classified documents from Snowden. I have news for Greenwald: The government is hacking your computers, reading your e-mails and monitoring your communications. Not the government in Washington, mind you, but the governments in Moscow and Beijing.
Greenwald said the people in possession of Snowden’s files “cannot access them yet because they are highly encrypted and they do not have the passwords.” I’m sure that elicited laughter in Moscow and Beijing. Snowden’s encryption may be an obstacle for journalists such as Greenwald, but it’s not a problem for the PLA and the FSB.
What this means is Snowden’s public revelations of classified information may very well be the least damaging thing he has done. By taking top-secret documents out of the country and carrying them first to China and then to Russia, Snowden has aided and abetted the PLA and the FSB in their espionage efforts against the United States.
That doesn’t make Snowden a hero. It makes him a traitor.
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