What's an intelligence service to do? (If I were FSB)

The narrative that Snowden was an FSB asset is gaining traction in the mainstream media ready for new soundbites and more importantly for a different narrative that the audience isn’t getting bored with. Cue in omnipotent, yet still second fiddle to the good guys (this is Hollywood story, folks), supervillain, the FSB.

According to the new narrative Snowden never worked alone, never talked a number of other NSA analysts and staff into giving him their username and password. Oh, no. He wasn’t just another disgruntled government employee that got emboldened by the leaks by Manning to WikiLeaks. That would make too much sense and we all know that simple explanations will not do when the matters of the state are involved.

A few thoughts and queries that come to mind for this new narrative: 1. If FSB handled Snowden, why the Hong Kong route? Why leave him stranded in effectively hostile environment? (That the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” is only true in stories.) 2. If FSB handled Snowden, why would they only steal data even after they knew they got made (or were really close to)? Why not leave a logic bomb of sorts behind? 3. If FSB handled Snowden, why would they take the route of leaking sensitive data and not the far more damaging one of just slightly modifying the systems used to analyse that data? 4. If FSB handled Snowden, why would they effectively aim to retire their best asset in decades long before his usefulness ran dry?

No, the story that FSB handled Snowden before he stole that documents isn’t internally consistent with the story that FSB managed to infiltrate NSA through the side channel. And yet there are some aspects of the leaks and the Snowden story that fit with the modus operandi of FSB and Slavic intelligence services (Yugoslavian UDBA being similar).

So here’s the section lovingly called “If I were FSB, this is what I’d do and why”:

  1. Nothing. And by that I mean, nothing by myself. Nothing that could be linked back to me. I prefer the shadows, that’s why. And by staying in the shadows my adversaries never know when I am or am not involved. It’s a stroke of genius and it feeds on irrational fears.
  2. From 1 it stems that I’d have to use others to further my goals. Let’s call them the Leakers. An adversary of my adversary may not be my friend nor ally, but that doesn’t make them useless. I will support the Leakers any way I can, mostly by spurring them on. Not directly, because they don’t like me either and don’t want to be (or be seen to be) overtly manipulated.
  3. For the Leakers to do damage and hopefully get others to damage my enemy I don’t need to do anything more than sit back and, where necessary, give tentative support by offering temporary refuge. I will be more open to them and may give them carefully created stories that sound plausible. I will also provide them with stories that can be used against our common adversary.
  4. Once the Leakers start doing their good work I will still not get involved in anything directly, for two reasons:
    1. I may be a genius intel agency, but I’m also lazy. This means I will wait for others to do the heavy lifting.
    2. My adversary is cornered and busy fighting its own constituency. I will not interrupt that fight by getting involved myself. Nothing brings people together like a common external enemy.
  5. Sit back and watch my adversary dramatically cut down on their current operations that relied on targets’ ignorance. Now that the targets know they’ve been targeted, my adversary cannot use old tools. They¬†will have to spend time and money building new capability - and that will take some time. Time I can use productively by fanning the flames. The longer my adversary is busy with his own constituency and those that want to expose his operations the more time I have for my other interest.

To me, the story of Snowden as a naive, impressionable, capable guy that got disenchanted by what his country does rings true. He got emboldened by the brazen stealing of diplomatic cables by Manning, he decided to do something similar himself. He learnt from Manning’s mistake and cut and run when he thought the net around him was tightening. He ran to the place he figured makes sense: Hong Kong. That it was based on flawed reasoning that China (HK) doesn’t have extradition treaty with the US adds to the story that he wasn’t handled by FSB at that stage. He also paid for his hotel stay with his own credit card, definitely something FSB would not have allowed.

And then he realised he’s all alone in the big bad world and that he’ll need to rely on the Leakers, the people that may or may not be able to help him. Enter FSB, playing the role of the knight in shiny armour. And they rode off into the sunset.