US Fears China May Have Manipulated Edward Snowden

US Fears China May Have Manipulated Edward Snowden

By Toby Harnden - June 16, 2013

Officials believe the NSA leaker hiding in Hong Kong could be under Beijing's influence, writes Toby Harnden in Washington

THE US government is investigating whether Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) employee who leaked details of American internet surveillance, has fallen under the influence of Chinese intelligence agents and fear he may even defect to China.

Snowden, 29, who has taken refuge in Hong Kong, initially said that it was “not my intention” to harm America and stressed that he had not released specific details of US intelligence operations.

But on Wednesday the computer expert, who appears to have downloaded large amounts of classified data onto a memory stick while working in Hawaii for the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, gave an interview to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper.

The newspaper said he had shared the internet protocol (IP) addresses of specific computers in mainland China and Hong Kong that the agency had tried to penetrate over the past four years, details of its success rates and other classified data.

American authorities fear that these disclosures from Snowden, who is said to have arrived in Hong Kong with four laptop computers, could prompt Chinese security chiefs to exert pressure on the former British colony to resist any extradition proceedings.

Snowden, who is believed to be in a safe house, began working for Booz Allen Hamilton only after he had contacted reporters, suggesting he might have been directed to Hong Kong by someone or have gone there for a specific purpose.

His girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, an acrobat and pole dancer, has left the home they shared in Hawaii, and is believed to be living on the American West Coast. She wrote in a blog post that she felt “lost at sea without a compass”.

His internet postings show that Snowden had been growing disillusioned with his work for several years. In 2010 he joined an online discussion about surveillance by a private computer company for the US government.

In one he wrote: “It really concerns me how little this sort of corporate behaviour bothers those outside of technology circles. Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types.”

Some intelligence officers have said his web postings indicate narcissism. In 2001 Snowden posted photographs of himself modelling, stating: “Too short/not pretty enough/etc/etc to make it to the magazine pages. I’m actually a systems engineer by trade.”

His web activity would have been accessible to intelligence agencies, which could have used the IP addresses to link them to Snowden, who already had security clearance and was working for US spy agencies.

Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said: “Does he have a relationship with a foreign government? And is there more to this story? Clearly there is — we’re going to make sure that there’s a thorough scrub of what he has, what his China connections are.”

The NSA station in Oahu, Hawaii, conducts cyberoperations against China and North Korea, making the island a priority for Chinese intelligence.

General Michael Hayden, a former NSA director who subsequently led the CIA, said Rogers had raised a legitimate concern. “If I were still in government, I would tell my folks to work one hypothesis that this is not random . . . that there is an existing or pre-existing or soon-to-be relationship with Chinese security services.”

Hayden, who was the CIA chief when Snowden received his first security clearance there, said changes in society made it almost inevitable that some employees would leak: “We're drawing from a population whose view of secrecy and transparency is quite a bit different from my generation.

“You end up with a [Bradley] Manning [the US soldier accused of passing classified documents to WikiLeaks] or a Snowden who has this almost romantic, idealistic commitment to transparency as an absolute as opposed to a relative good. We’re going to pick up a few more of these folks.”

One intelligence officer said the timing of the leak, which coincided with Barack Obama’s California summit with Xi Jinping, the president of China, was suspicious. Hayden said: “There we were, getting the Chinese into a serious dialogue about Chinese cyber-behaviour, and now I fear this will set us back quite a bit.”

In Hong Kong, Snowden’s computers and phones are highly vulnerable to being compromised by Chinese intelligence. Any information he gives the authorities there is likely to be shared with Beijing.

Frank Snepp, a former CIA officer who was pursued by the American government through the courts after writing a memoir criticising the hasty US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, said he was “stunned” by Snowden’s interview.

One possibility, he said, was that his judgment had gone awry because of the pressure of going public. “I worked in secrecy to write my book and when I finally hit the airwaves it was terrible. I was disoriented because I had been so used to living in isolation.”

Another scenario was more sinister. “It may very well be that some cutout for Chinese intelligence has realised that this is a golden asset — a potential agent of influence — and they’ve dumped into his ear that he can expect respect for freedom of speech in Hong Kong.

“The old spook in me is inclined to look for other reason than the ones he articulates and one obvious reason is he's a very good catch for the people who run Chinese intelligence in Hong Kong.”

He added that being branded a traitor by members of Congress could push him into Beijing’s hands. “We’re at a very delicate moment for the US government. If they begin to push him any further or denigrate him, there’s a very good chance he could begin naming names.”

In the 1970s Philip Agee, a former CIA officer, named 250 of his former colleagues and went to work for Cuban intelligence.

General Keith Alexander, the current NSA chief, has said he is investigating how Snowden, a high school dropout who left the US army after just a few months, was able to get a high security clearance with thin educational qualifications and a patchy employment record.

David Charney, a psychiatrist who has worked with the CIA for 20 years, said Snowden had similarities to Manning. Both had a likeness to “classic spies”.

Spies, he said, usually had “a core psychology which is an intolerable sense of personal failure”. In addition, when things go wrong, it contributed to a “psychological perfect storm”. Many people would turn to alcohol, drugs or suicide but others would tell themselves, “No, I’m not the problem, it’s them.”

If such people were employed by an intelligence agency “the sweetest way to take revenge is to cross over and become a spy”. Snowden and Manning fitted this pattern.

“These guys are self-absorbed, egotistical, arrogant, grandiose, they have a big sense of their place in the world and that they can call the shots as they please.” 


Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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