Enron Corporation, in the years leading up to its implosion due to carefully concealed financial risks, ran a a print ad with a slogan along the lines of “it’s what you can’t see that makes the difference.” In retrospect, this proved grimly ironic. It is, for similar reasons, a good slogan to bear in mind when considering the harm done by Hillary Clinton’s gross recklessness with classified intelligence – and some crucial context provided this weekend in the matter of Edward Snowden.
Consider this remarkable admission from FBI Director James Comey’s press statement:
Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.
For example, seven e-mail chains concern matters that were classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level when they were sent and received. These chains involved Secretary Clinton both sending e-mails about those matters and receiving e-mails from others about the same matters…None of these e-mails should have been on any kind of unclassified system, but their presence is especially concerning because all of these e-mails were housed on unclassified personal servers not even supported by full-time security staff, like those found at Departments and Agencies of the U.S. Government—or even with a commercial service like Gmail.
…With respect to potential computer intrusion by hostile actors, we did not find direct evidence that Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail domain, in its various configurations since 2009, was successfully hacked. But, given the nature of the system and of the actors potentially involved, we assess that we would be unlikely to see such direct evidence. We do assess that hostile actors gained access to the private commercial e-mail accounts of people with whom Secretary Clinton was in regular contact from her personal account. We also assess that Secretary Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail domain was both known by a large number of people and readily apparent. She also used her personal e-mail extensively while outside the United States, including sending and receiving work-related e-mails in the territory of sophisticated adversaries. Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail account.
In other words, the evidence isn’t visible, but the circumstances make it fairly likely that her emails were compromised, and we have no way of assessing the extent of the damage or proving that it was done, or by whom. The history of hostile foreign powers making off with U.S. national security secrets is full of cases that didn’t emerge, or weren’t conclusively proven, for decades (think of all the things we learned only in retrospect from the opening of the Soviet archives). Consider Edward Snowden. What we already knew is that Snowden made off with a lot of sensitive intelligence, that he was given refuge by Putin’s Russia, and that the security services of a government run by an ex-KGB agent have retained much of the old ethos of the Soviet-era Chekist security apparatus in which Putin and his closest advisors were trained. John Schindler, a former NSA counterintelligence professional and Naval War College professor, has been arguing for some time now that we should conclude from the circumstantial evidence that Snowden is providing intelligence to the Russians as a quid pro quo for Putin’s protection. On Saturday, Schindler noted the significance of an interview quoted by NPR given by a senior veteran of the Kremlin security elite:
Now, the Kremlin has settled the issue once and for all by stating that Edward Snowden is indeed their man. In a remarkable interview this week, Franz Klintsevich, a senior Russian security official, explained the case matter-of-factly: “Let’s be frank. Snowden did share intelligence. This is what security services do. If there’s a possibility to get information, they will get it.”
With this, Klintsevich simply said what all intelligence professionals already knew – that Snowden is a collaborator with the FSB. That he really had no choice in the matter once he set foot in Russia does not change the facts.
Klintsevich is no idle speculator. He is a senator who has served in the State Duma for nearly a decade. More importantly, he is the deputy chair of the senate’s defense and security committee, which oversees the special services. The 59-year-old Klintsevich thus has access to many state secrets – for instance regarding the Snowden case.
He is also a retired Russian army colonel, having served 22 years in the elite Airborne Forces (VDV)…Klintsevich is not a well-known figure outside Russia…but he is a well-connected member of the Kremlin’s ruling elite. Given his senate committee position and his GRU past, there is no doubt that Klintsevich is considered nash (“ours”) by Russia’s special services.
His statement outing Snowden’s relationship with the Kremlin therefore cannot be an accident or a slip of the tongue. For whatever reason, Putin has decided to out Snowden as the collaborator that he actually is – and has been for three years already.
One reason for this may be Snowden’s recent tepid criticism via Twitter of Russia’s draconian new laws on domestic surveillance – which vastly exceed any of the activities of the Western democracies that Snowden has so strongly criticized from his FSB hideaway. Indeed, his hosts finally allowing their American collaborator to tweet negatively about Russia – many had noted Snowden’s silence on FSB repression and worse – may be a sign that the defector has outlived his usefulness.
Russian intelligence and security services have been waging a campaign of harassment and intimidation against U.S. diplomats, embassy staff and their families in Moscow and several other European capitals that has rattled ambassadors and prompted Secretary of State John F. Kerry to ask Vladimir Putin to put a stop to it.
At a recent meeting of U.S. ambassadors from Russia and Europe in Washington, U.S. ambassadors to several European countries complained that Russian intelligence officials were constantly perpetrating acts of harassment against their diplomatic staff that ranged from the weird to the downright scary. Some of the intimidation has been routine: following diplomats or their family members, showing up at their social events uninvited or paying reporters to write negative stories about them.
But many of the recent acts of intimidation by Russian security services have crossed the line into apparent criminality. In a series of secret memos sent back to Washington, described to me by several current and former U.S. officials who have written or read them, diplomats reported that Russian intruders had broken into their homes late at night, only to rearrange the furniture or turn on all the lights and televisions, and then leave. One diplomat reported that an intruder had defecated on his living room carpet.
Are these events connected? Do we know what we don’t know? Sometimes, it’s what you can’t see that makes the difference.