Is Edward snowden the Soviet Unions greatest intelligence asset since Richard Sorge?

This morning I read Walter Pincus in the Washington Post on the material copied by Edward Snowden that has not yet been published in the West. Whatever his claimed motives, it is now apparent that Snowden may well be the Soviet Union’s greatest intelligence asset since Richard Sorge . Sorge changed the course of history by enabling Stalin to use the Siberian Army against Hitler in the depths of winter 1941, secure in the knowledge that Japan had no plans to attack until Moscow had actually fallen.  

Snowden, like Sorge, may have changed the course of history: not just crippling future US counter-intelligence but ending the US dominance of the computing and communications industries as a whole and not “just” the Internet.

I personally am more concerned about we not only extricate the UK from the wreckage, but turn the Snowden affair to advantage – reinforcing the position of the City of London (as proxy for four million jobs across the UK, from Chatham to Carlisle) as the world’s trusted on-line intermediary, akin to its position in fnancial services, shipping and freight forwarding.

Given that Chinese “due dilligence” (alias their “penetration testing” exercises) has shown that the UK financial services security infrastructures are rather more robust than those of the NSA, I am quite hopeful. 

That raises the question of why they are.

Some years ago a major fraud in New York used a trap door thought to be known only to the NSA. The experience was a major wake up call to both the US and UK financial services. Either the Russians had also found the weaknesses and gone “to the dark side” or former ex-NSA employees had done so. Either way “patriotism was not enough” and former “patriots” might well have “life-style aspirations”.

During the RIPA debate I was told by some of those in the City that they were concerned that GCHQ’s expertise had been hollowed out by their raids for the talent to keep their systems secure from all-comers. They had therefore agreed a self-denying ordinance, including joint funding for collaborative exercises “contracted” to CESG, to ensure that half a dozen key individuals stayed in Cheltenham.

Whether or not those stories are true, most of what has been publicised to date was already known or rumoured across the security communities and those financial services operations who handle the affairs of the world’s sovereign wealth funds and high net worth individuals have long taken great care to avoid having these spied upon by their supposed “friends” as well as their known “foes” (but also perhaps future customers. Hence their use of multiple layers of supposedly redundant and inefficient security technology and their resistance to well-intentioned regulatory initiatives which would, in practice, weaken rather than strengthen, their security and resiliance.

Perhaps Bill Maslin is right (see his comments in response to my blog on Carlos Solari’s book) and Snowden has done us all a favour. But I doubt it will be seen that way by those who will be made redundant by the US high tech industries as their business shrink.

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Philip, Philip. You continue to overlook my main point: that where you have unmonitored (unexplained, unfettered, ungoverned) levels of secrecy, you can automatically expect those 'in the know' to abuse said secrecy for their own personal ends. Oh, they will often protest their ends are 'good', i.e. essential for the protection of society, vital to the security of the nation or - most egregious of all - essential for preserving jobs and the labour market (the argument used to justify the lack of legal recriminations for the financial crisis in, yes, the City of London, despite extensive evidence of illegal activity). But in every case, these arguments - even if initially justified - will cease to be true within a very short time, because of the lack of clear checks and balances on the behaviour of a small group of people with a disproportionate amount of power.

Let me sidestep briefly (you'll see where I'm going with this): the fact that a politician like Keith Vaz of all people can ask the editor of the Guardian whether he 'loves his country' reflects the alarming way our 'secret elite' defend their actions: by implying that any criticism of the way our national security is run is automatically treasonous and immoral, because obviously our national security institutions hew to an (impossibly) high moral standard: 'love of country'. Any hint that 'love of country' is not the be-all and end-all of their motivation is greeted with howls of rage (or grisly threats like the ex-NSA chairman's recently expressed desire to see Snowden hanged). And yet today's latest revelations about the targets of GCHQ spying show that 'love of country' is unlikely to be at the top of their agenda; very few human beings are capable of maintaining such abstract idealism for long. Snowden's actions, I suggest, were largely motivated by 'love of country', although as an individual he stands outside the protection our 'secret elite' (e.g. MI6) can automatically rely on for backup in defending their more egregious actions (e.g. conspiring in CIA torture). So he's an easy target. By contrast, we don't get to judge our secret elite. Because we don't really know what they're doing, or even why they're doing it.

Precisely because of that, there is absolutely no way we should be required to assume that everything they're doing is perfect: perfectly governed, perfectly balanced - we don't assume such a thing of our politicians, and indeed, experience shows that we're quite right not to make such an assumption. So why on Earth do you appear to be arguing that we should base our handling of the 'secret elite' on such an unrealistic assumption? And trust implicitly in their goodwill? No doubt many of them are splendid human beings. No doubt many of them are not. But we can only conjecture - we don't actually know.

What we do know is that these secret people in GCHQ are breaking the law. In your blog you put forward a number of pragmatic points which appear to be implying: 'so what? Surely it's better for jobs/the economy/the nation as a whole that such laws should be broken'. Until, Philip, it isn't. The point is, neither you nor I will be in a position to judge whether our secret agencies have abused their secret power too far; we won't perceive the tilting point until it is much too late. By which time, Philip, our economy might well be down the pan in any case: 'secret' collusion is what caused the financial crisis in the first place, and I think we can both agree that no matter how splendid the City of London is, it is not entirely lacking in blame for the loss of jobs/incomes/homes that resulted from that little fiasco. 2014, I suggest, should be about transparency. Not just lip service to glorious but decidedly difficult-to-evaluate ideals like 'love of country'.