By the time Dick Cheney said it last week, the insinuation that Snowden was at best a patsy and far more likely a spy for the Chinese government had been all over Twitter for several days – indeed, from the moment he chose Hong Kong as his first destination for flight. The impetus for those rumors seemed to come from high within the US national security establishment, as former CIA officer Bob Baer was happy to tell CNN viewers.
“Hong Kong is controlled by Chinese intelligence,” Baer said. “It’s not an independent part of China at all. I’ve talked to a bunch of people in Washington today, in official positions, and they are looking at this as a potential Chinese espionage case.”
“On the face of it, it looks like it is under some sort of Chinese control, especially with the president meeting the premier today,” Baer said. “You have to ask what’s going on. China is not a friendly country and every aspect of that country is controlled. So why Hong Kong? Why didn’t he go to Sweden?
…“It almost seems to me that this was a pointed affront to the United States on the day the president is meeting the Chinese leader,” Baer said, “telling us, listen, quit complaining about espionage and getting on the internet and our hacking. You are doing the same thing.”
Snowden’s sudden departure from Hong Kong, with a snarky assist from the Hong Kong government, seems to have torpedoed this simplistic and distracting narrative, however. Any tale that has Snowden still be a Chinese spy but leaving China for Ecuador (via Moscow) to throw US intelligence off the scent would have to have thrown Mr. Occam out with the bathwater before it could even begin.
I wondered aloud whether we’d see any ‘mea culpas’ from the natsec pundits and insiders who catapulted the “Chinese Spy” rumor ( we haven’t yet) and my colleague Matt Elliot came back with a very astute observation: Snowden seems to have come from the same hacktivist school of nation state ‘disruption theory‘ as Assange and while 9/11 represented the beginning of a very awkward transition, the national security establishment is still very much bound by an entrenched Cold War mentality. They are still pretty much incapable of recognizing a non-state actor if it doesn’t come complete with long beard and keffiyeh – and the attendant “shadow states” so beloved of the Taliban and Al Qaeda which make them only a passing-point on the road to the kind of anarcho-libertarian stateless groups Assange talks about and the Anonymous group says it actualizes. Thus comes the inevitable assumption about Snowden being a state spy and the inevitable barking up the wrong trees.
Which would all be rather amusing if General Alexander – the man in charge of the sprawling NSA, chief of the Central Security Service and commander of the US Cyber Command which comprises he Navy’s 10th Fleet, the 24th Air Force, and the Second Army – didn’t insist on describing his cyberwar duties in terms that exactly echo and often deliberately reference the Cold War apparatus of nuclear warfare.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And the head of the director of national intelligence, Mr. Clapper, has said that cyber threats are the top national security threat.
You are the head of the U.S. cyber command, so you preside over elements of the Navy, the Air Force, the Army, the deal with cyber warfare operations. And in your testimony to Congress you said that this involves both defensive cyber warfare, but also offensive operations. Here’s what you said.
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ALEXANDER: This is an offensive team that the Defense Department would use to defend the nation if it were attacked in cyberspace. Thirteen of the teams that we’re creating are for that mission set alone.
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STEPHANOPOULOS: And one of the documents leaked by Mr. Snowden, the PPD 20, I believe, elaborates on that authority. He also says you have emergency authority to act on your own in circumstances, including anticipatory action against imminent threat.
So that’s a preemptive capability, preemptive authority for you.
Can you help explain under what kind of circumstances you would be authorized on your own to launch an offensive act of cyber warfare?
ALEXANDER: So to be clear, what I can do on my own right now is within our networks to launch offensive measures to stop somebody from getting into the networks.
Anything that I want to do outside the networks that is offensive in nature, we would have to call the secretary and the president to get their approval.
So there are things that we can do to stop packets in flight. But from our perspective, any actions that’s offensive in nature would require the policymakers. This is no different than if you think about the nuclear situation.
Would anyone be happy with a situation where the national security establishment assumed that single nuke had to be the work of some state or other, and look for a state to retaliate against, in this day and age when many with the capability to disrupt see the very concept of ‘states’ as an anachronism? Forget 1984 — It’s Bill Gibson and Neil Stephenson who are dictating the zeitgeist.
Update, Monday 24: Notice the revelation that Snowden joined Booz specifically to gather evidence also fits the idea of him as a hacktivist from the disruptive school – and that the IC’s Cold Warrior bozos are still trying to figure out how it proves he’s a commie spy.