Snowden Has Done an Enormous Damage to the West

15. 3. 2017

An Interview with Edward Lucas by Maciej Nowicki

Edward Snowden published a lot of documents that had nothing to do with the violation of civil liberties. What he did fits perfectly with the interests of the Kremlin— says Edward Lucas in an interview with Maciej Nowicki.

You are very critical of Edward Snowden. You call him a “useful idiot” and in your book The Snowden Operation you even suggest that he could have been recruited by the Russian intelligence…

I must admit that at the beginning I perceived it differently. I even felt a sort of admiration for this intelligence officer who had sacrificed his career and risked long years in prison, as he revealed facts inconvenient to Western intelligence agencies. His motivations appealed to me. He claimed he was disgusted that a huge amount of information on innocent citizens and friendly countries was being collected. That all of this was carried out in secret and the courts issued permissions in secret. And that computer programs, today forming an irremovable part of our lives, on request of the intelligence community had been designed in a way allowing them to spy on us. I always suspected that intelligence agencies were abusing their power…

So when did you change your mind about Snowden?

The information published by him does not indicate systematic violations of the law by the NSA or other security agencies. It does not prove that the NSA is a rogue agency over which there is no control and which is constantly violating the rights of ordinary Americans. In all the material published so far there is no single piece of irrefutable evidence that the NSA violated the privacy of even one American citizen. It has shown how absurd were the claims of the Snowdenists that Western agencies were a new incarnation of the Stasi and KGB seeking to eliminate the “private sphere on a global scale.”

You disagree with Snowden on every point?

I believe that the NSA’s ability to collect such a gigantic amount of metadata deserves a more detailed look. It is shocking. There are too many classified and too many people have security certificates. The management of these certificates itself has become a huge industry, full of incompetence and influence trading. I do not like the fact that the Obama administration treated the people calling for a change in an extremely brutal way. But that still does not justify what Snowden did.

What would a true whistleblower do? Suppose that the NSA really forced companies to design software making it easier to spy on the citizens. Then the whistleblower provides an illustration of some randomly selected decisions that led to this situation. Of course, he would have been tried and he would have risked prison. But he would also have very good arguments in his defense. He would declare that he had taken care to do the least damage to the intelligence community. And that the damage which he had not avoided was more than compensated for by the public good brought by his disclosures. He would almost certainly have the Congress and the majority of the American public behind him.

Snowden had acted completely differently. He published a whole lot of documents that had nothing to do with the violation of civil liberties. His files contain, for example, information on how such countries as Norway or Sweden spy on Russia. Do we really believe that revealing how democracies spy on dictatorships is truly in public interest? Is it really a “greater good”? Or the disclosure of how the NSA breaks into computers and mobile phones in China or Hong Kong. Another issue is whom we should condemn: the NSA, which intercepts emails and keeps watch on Taliban and Pakistani nuclear weapons? Or rather the man who publishes details of such operations?

You say that acting like a real whistleblower would win him the liking of the public. But he won it anyway, almost all over the world…

Supporting him are the people who believe in advance that the United States deserve to be punished, that America is the greatest threat to global security. I certainly do not think so. I take issue with the fact that Snowden has done enormous damage to the West. The far-fetched interpretations of documents stolen by him weakened the relationship between the US and Europe. They harmed cooperation between their security agencies, they undermined public trust in the intelligence and special forces in the West. And made their job much, much more difficult… It will all change our world exclusively for the worse. I do not believe that the Snowdenists are Russian agents. But it is difficult not to ask who benefits from all this damage? What Snowden did is completely in line with the economic, geopolitical and security interests of the Kremlin. The timing of this sabotage was just perfect.

There is yet another reason for Snowden’s popularity. People feel increasingly alienated from public life and do not trust politicians. The less they believe in the political system—which in their view is thoroughly corrupt—the more they believe that only individuals “proclaiming the truth” can save us. Snowden fits with these expectations. He presents the security community as a kind of “secret government” which wants to have control over everything.

Should we criticize the journalists of the Guardian or the New York Times who revealed all this?

We, the journalists, do not have unconditional immunity putting as above everything. There are secrets so sensitive that they should not be disclosed. Firstly, because sometimes we do not realize their importance. Secondly, because journalists are also citizens. Openness is a great value. But the quality of our lives and our safety depends on the proper functioning of the state.

You compare the Snowdenists to the pacifists from the 1980s, demonstrating in favor of the ban on nuclear weapons.

Members of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980’s claimed that they were opposed both to Western, and the Soviet nuclear weapons. Except that they only had a real impact on Western governments and Western public opinion. And their impact on the Kremlin was nil. So the postulate to ban nuclear weapons amounted to an acceptance of Soviet hegemony in Europe. Snowden’s camp priorities are similar. Just as the activists from the 1980s, today’s fighters for the protection of privacy and freedom of the Internet see all too clearly all the flaws of their own country. But they do not have much to say about the truly repressive regimes. They are not concerned at all with violations of freedom in Russia or China. They simply do not care. Just like they do not care that Snowden is in Moscow, or about the circumstances in which he found himself there. The fact that people who suspect Western governments of bad intentions at every turn remain absolutely certain that Putin is only guided by good intentions, can at best be considered bizarre…

New technologies always aroused extreme emotions. Some saw in them the promise of total liberation, some of absolute slavery. The Snowdenists are another version of the extreme pessimists claiming that “digitalization” imposes shackles on us.

My next book, Cyberphobia, will be about the risks connected with the Internet. I write it for people who do not understand that the hooligans, criminals and spies moving about on the net are a growing problem. Therefore, we need a much more precise “digital identity” than the one we have today. Crimes based on pretending to be someone else on the Internet are today just all too easy.

So we have reason to be worried. But we should not panic. Society has always changed in response to the appearance of new technologies. And that will also happen this time. We will find new ways of conduct, just as we did when cars or computers appeared. We will probably have to change the law and create new institutions, but we will meet the challenges.

You said that the Snowdenists where behaving as if only the West was spying. What is the scale of Russian operations in the West?

Many people thought that this had ended with the collapse of the USSR. They were wrong. The last 25 years have witnessed a resurgence of Russian espionage. Its scale is enormous. Sources in Western counterintelligence claim that there are hundreds of active intelligence officers managing thousands of spies—they are taking money or they are so naive that they do not even have a clue that they are working for the Kremlin.

Russian intelligence officers are deployed in embassies, under an official guise, but most of them disguise themselves as businessmen or academics. There are also “illegals”—people with false passports. Our task is more difficult nowadays—before 1989 every visitor from the USSR was conspicuous. Today Russians can travel unnoticed. And on top of that, Western intelligence agencies are often underfunded, and the priority is targeting Islamist terrorists. The recorded executions of hostages off whom the Jihadists—often EU citizens—cut the heads are more shocking in the West than the Russian games. In short, we are not keeping up with the developments. As if that was not enough, many countries do not want trouble with Russia. Finland agreed with Moscow long ago that it would not publicize its spying activities. Greece is extremely friendly to the Russians. The Spaniards and Italians do not care too much. In short, most countries put very little effort in the hunt for Russian agents. And even if they track down a spy, there is no indictment. But if we want the situation to change, we must be tough. We must sack these people, confiscate the money they got for spying and put them in prison.

During a ceremony in Berlin, Gorbachev said that we stood on the threshold of another Cold War and that the entire responsibility for that lay with the West. What do you think about that?

There is one thing we certainly did not do wrong: thank God that we expanded NATO. Without that the situation would be much, much worse. It is not true that we promised Russia that there would be no expansion. And it would have been unthinkable if we did not allow the former victims of the Hitler-Stalin pact to join the West.

And what did we do wrong? We overrated the power of our system, we behaved as if it had no flaws and there was nothing to reflect on.

The second big mistake: we treated the inhabitants of Central and Eastern Europe with condescension, as semi-savage and backward people. We did not care about the nightmares they had gone through. We regarded their warnings that Russia could be dangerous as illusions. Now we are behaving in a similar fashion towards the Ukrainians: we despise them and as a result we have the biggest security crisis in Europe since more than 30 years.

But another thing was the worst. We were so grateful to Mr Gorbachev for the fact that the Soviet Union Empire collapsed without bloodshed that all the rest did not matter to us. We did not reflect on what would happen with Russia afterwards. We were not interested whether Russia abandoned its imperial way of thinking— like Germany atoned for Nazism. We did not ask if Russia disbanded the KGB. Whether the crimes of Communism were atoned for. As a result the ghosts of the past are returning in the shape of Putin. Again no neighbor of Russia can feel safe.

Since the Russian invasion on the Crimea you are a great pessimist. Has anything changed recently in this respect?

I am still in a miserable mood. Russia is the winning side today. But in the West there has been a change in the perception of Putin. At last the people have realized that it is not just about Ukraine, that Russia is the revisionist power wanting to question the existing order in Europe. But I do not see true determination to draw adequate conclusions from this change in the perception of the Kremlin’s ruler.

Cameron is very tough. London’s position towards Moscow today is perhaps the toughest in the past 30 years. Mrs. Merkel is constantly exhibiting her dissatisfaction. But these changes are too slow and too small. Putin is a very difficult opponent. He is ready to do three things at once: use force, lie endlessly and agree to great economic austerities. And we are not ready for that. We do not want economic war with Russia, which may even deepen the recession and unemployment in the West. Neither politicians nor voters are going to agree to this. Unfortunately this means a world where in the coming years Russia is going to play the first violin in Europe and impose its conditions.

What is Putin’s plan in your opinion?

Putin has three goals. First, he wants to weaken the American-European alliance even more. Second, he wants to create a new European order based on zones of influence. Russia wants the right of veto not only on the territories of the former Soviet empire, but also in relation to Sweden and Finland. The security of Russia is to be based on the loss of the security of all these countries. Third, he wants the end of an era when the EU was capable of imposing the rules. This is very important, especially in energy matters. Russia has a deep aversion to liberalization and transparency of the energy market, because that in practice would put Gasprom against the wall. And hence greatly weaken the Kremlin.

Putin has many problems associated with the decline in oil prices. But so far nothing is changing: the Russians are ready for sacrifices. Putin would begin to fear only if the EU pushed through, for example, its idea for the reorganization of the energy market. For Moscow it would be a kind of geopolitical state of emergency. But there is no indication of that. Russian energy diplomacy is highly successful. If five years ago somebody told me that the group of countries supporting the South stream would contain not only Serbia and Bulgaria, but also Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria and Italy— despite the fact that the European Commission banned it—I would see it as the blackest pessimism. But this is what happened.

In your opinion, today’s Russian economic problems are not of such a great significance?

Of course, Putin has real problems. He knows that Russia is mired in stagnation, that it is a backward country, that all attempts at diversifying the economy have failed and that the country is still fully dependent on exports of raw materials. And this is why he decided to change the criteria of success. He convinced the Russians that the most important thing is to regain the soft hegemony over a part of the former empire, and to expose the weakness of the West. According to these criteria everything is going well for him. He has taken a risky course, but he has plenty reasons to be satisfied.

This is not all. Russia cannot afford a conventional war, for it is weaker than us. Russia’s GDP is $2 trillion, while NATO budget alone is $1 trillion. The EU has half a billion people, while Russia only has 140 million. But this is precisely the reason why Putin is not waging a conventional war, but a hybrid one. And this war has one center of command in the shape of the Kremlin while we are unable to act together. As a result, the weaker Russia is constantly winning.

I recently spoke to Richard Pipes, who told me that Obama had always regarded Russia as a secondary problem.

Obama is the worst president of the United States since very many years. The US position in Europe has never been worse and NATO has never been in a worse state. The undeclared war in Ukraine was a great test of the American engagement in Europe—and so far Obama completely failed this test.

For a very long time Washington was dabbling in some details, such as diplomatic negotiations with Russian participation, which were doomed to failure, but he completely neglected what was most important. The Kremlin was testing American readiness to really do something in Ukraine. And it realized very quickly that America was not intending to do anything. When General Phillip Breedlove called on intelligence agencies to transfer information to the Ukrainians and appealed for strengthening NATO forces in the Baltic countries and Poland (the countries most vulnerable to Russian attack) the White House immediately blocked this initiative.

I do not want to put all the blame on Americans— Europe is divided and weak. But there is nothing new in that. It was Washington that changed its course. Obama is the first post-Atlantic president. He completely misunderstands the idea of NATO. He does not know why he should deal with that at all. So he does not. So it is hardly surprising that it is producing disastrous results. The only hope is that the president cares about his reputation and that after all he does not want to go down in history as the president who caused the collapse of the North Atlantic Alliance.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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