Are Intelligence Officials Justified in Blaming Snowden for Not Predicting Crimea?

The Wall Street Journal gives anonymous American officials a chance to point fingers at Snowden for their failure to predict Crimea. After all, where else are they going to point them?

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A front-page article in Monday's Wall Street Journal gives anonymous American intelligence officials a chance to point fingers at Edward Snowden for their (embarrassing) failure to predict Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea. After all, where else are they going to point them?

The article focuses on the intelligence community's failure to pick up communications between Russian leaders and military commanders in the run-up to the takeover of Crimea. The day before Russian soldiers began overtly entering the country (covert entry apparently began much earlier), officials felt comfortable leaking to the Daily Beast their assessment that Putin wouldn't act against the Ukrainian territory.

The Journal talked to officials who place the blame on Snowden.

Some U.S. military and intelligence officials say Russia's war planners might have used knowledge about the U.S.'s usual surveillance techniques to change communication methods about the looming invasion. U.S. officials haven't determined how Russia hid its military plans from U.S. eavesdropping equipment that picks up digital and electronic communications.

Whether or not the Snowden leaks allowed Russia to avoid scrutiny is a valid question, with three possible answers:

  1. The reported NSA leaks tipped off the Russians about how to avoid surveillance.
  2. Snowden — intentionally or not — gave the Russians more information than is public.
  3. Intelligence agencies missed the call.

Looking at each:

1. The reported NSA leaks tipped off the Russians about how to avoid surveillance.

A caveat up front: It's very difficult for anyone without security clearance to analyze the Snowden leaks and determine what they might have revealed to the Russians. Perhaps they used Facebook exclusively for communicating between Putin and the front lines, meaning that PRISM was picking everything up. Lay people (and, probably, non-Russians) don't know what channels were used.

Most of the Snowden revelations outline on intelligence-gathering focused on individual actors. Which makes sense: the expansion of NSA powers under the Bush and Obama administrations was meant to improve the country's ability to uproot terrorists, who operate in small cells or as individuals more frequently than they act under the aegis of a country. Details about how the NSA surveilled social media networks or observed unencrypted communications between corporate servers show how the agency targeted people who lack their own private communications networks. This is why Americans are angry and worried; they, like terrorists, use corporate infrastructure to communicate.

Revelations about how the NSA taps international network centers also seems an unlikely culprit for allowing the Russians to evade detection. Would missives from the Kremlin to army units near the Ukrainian border route through England? Moreover: Would the NSA's observing those connection points really come as a surprise to the Russians? There are other specifics that Snowden revealed, such as tapping world leaders' phones and surveilling communications at diplomatic events — neither of which occurred within the window of action in Crimea.

Perhaps the most likely report that could be blamed for tipping off the Russians are of the NSA's efforts to undermine online encryption. The NSA worked to build holes into standard encryptions systems. If the Russians weren't using customized peer-to-peer tools to encrypt communications between the Kremlin and the military — which would be a massive failure on their part — it's possible that the NSA revelations changed their behavior.

All of these seem unlikely.

2. Snowden — intentionally or not — gave the Russians more information than is public.

Theory A: He gave them information intentionally. One of the longstanding arguments about Snowden has been that he is a spy for, first, China, and then Russia. He's repeatedly indicated that he isn't a spy, but, of course, that is what a spy would say.

The idea that Snowden is a spy is perhaps the strongest argument for Snowden's having provided the Russians with information that allowed them to evade detection. No one — including the NSA — is entirely certain what documents he stole. Some might contain information of great interest to foreign actors.

But there's little public indication that he is a spy besides broad charges. There haven't been any credible reports of contact between Snowden and the Russians prior to his leaving the United States; he doesn't appear to be under state protection at this point, either. None of which, admittedly, is conclusive.

Theory B: He gave them information unintentionally. It is also possible that the Russians accessed Snowden's computer and acquired the NSA documents in that way. There's a hiccup with that: Snowden has repeatedly said that he didn't bring any of the NSA files with him to Russia, carrying them on flash drives that he turned over to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in Hong Kong. This, too, has inspired skepticism.

3. Intelligence agencies missed the call.

Then there's that third option: that intelligence agencies missed the call.

The Journal reports that intelligence agencies were more worried about Russia's moves immediately prior to the invasion than that Daily Beast article let on. To the Daily Beast, one (anonymous) source said that, "from an intelligence perspective we don’t have any reason to think it’s more than military exercises." When policy makers were briefed shortly before that, however, the word "exercises" was put in quotation marks, to indicate skepticism about Putin's behavior.

But it's impossible not to recognize that Snowden offers a wonderful scapegoat for the intelligence community, simultaneously giving them an out on having blown the assessment and reinforcing their argument that Snowden has done irreparable harm to the United States. As a member of The New York Times editorial board put it on Sunday, even "with this capacity for accumulating limitless data" revealed by the Snowden leaks, "Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea had not been anticipated." The failure has prompted a congressional inquiry — as the Daily Beast was quick to note in a follow-up to its erroneous report.

Part of the problem, the Journal suggests, may have been that the intelligence agencies had refocused away from countries like Russia in favor of other areas. "Since the end of the Cold War," the Journal reports, "U.S. spy satellites and other intelligence-gathering assets have been focused less on Russia and more on counterterrorism, the Middle East and Asia, reflecting shifting U.S. priorities." When European agencies asked for more intelligence resources in the region prior to Putin's invasion, the paper cites officials saying that the U.S. "couldn't steer too many resources away from Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran and other hot spots."

There's a broader question that's worth raising, too: What were they going to do anyway? "Even with a clearer understanding of Mr. Putin's plans," the Journal writes, "the Obama administration thought it had few options to stop him. U.S. spy chiefs told President Barack Obama three days before the Crimea operation that Russia could take over the peninsula so fast that Washington might find out only when it was done." That doesn't really sound like Edward Snowden's fault.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.