13 November 2019

Our Discontents


Edward Snowden has a book out, called Permanent Record, wherein he explains himself, and his betrayal of his country's secrets. Jonathan Lethem gives it a very sympathetic and thoughtful reading in The New York Review of Books:
I've never pretended to have much sympathy for Snowden, myself. He's a defector in all but name, and did make love to this employment. Esli igrat' ovsta, vstretit' volk blizko, Russian folk wisdom has it. "If you act the sheep, you'll meet a wolf nearby."


I    SNOWDEN

Snowden's storyline is different from, say, Daniel Ellsberg's. Ellsberg knowingly put himself in jeopardy. After the NY Times and Washington POST began publication of the Pentagon Papers, he was indicted for the theft and unauthorized release of classified documents. The judge in the case dismissed all charges and declared a mistrial on the grounds of government misfeasance - the Plumbers are one part of the picture, while Nixon's people offered the judge himself an appointment as FBI Director - and Ellsberg walked.

Snowden never showed this kind of willingness to take responsibility for his actions. He shopped the information around, and he was canny with his tradecraft. When he jumped ship, he took care to reformat all the hard drives on his old computers, and he took four new laptops with him on his way to Hong Kong, one for secure comms, one for normal comms, one as a decoy, and the last with what's called an air gap, meaning physically isolated from insecure networks and in fact never connected to any network at all. Let's accept that this is a sensible precaution - for somebody going over to the enemy. Snowden's explanations ring hollow. I'm sorry. You can embrace paranoia, you can say, look what happened to Ellsberg. (You can of course go further. Gordon Liddy, one of the Plumbers, famously said he'd willingly stand on a street corner, and they could whack him. One way not to be subpoenaed by a grand jury.) Snowden is taking steps to protect himself, but at the same time, he's playing to the cheap seats.

He sees himself as some kind of James Bond. Do we really imagine he's concerned with the privacy of American citizens, or NSA's abuse of civil rights? Gimme a break. This is a guy with an over-inflated sense of his own importance. He imagines himself in the lead part, but in truth he's nothing more than a cameo. He moves some of the furniture around, and exits.


II   PHILBY

Spy memoirs are a subset of the political or campaign biography, and the defector memoir is even narrower and more specific, being in practice targeted disinformation, self-serving and untrustworthy. Kim Philby's My Silent War is a canny business model.

Philby was the foremost of the Cambridge Five, arguably the most successful KGB penetration of Western intelligence during the Cold War. He was recruited in the 1930's, and maintained his cover for almost thirty years, before escaping to Moscow. He betrayed sources and methods, and compromised an uncounted number of assets. There's no way of knowing how many of them were tortured and executed. Not least, he poisoned the relationship between the UK and US security services for years afterwards - the Americans thought the British spy world was riddled with poofs and Pinkoes - and led to a fury of counterintelligence investigations and an abiding institutional mistrust.

Philby's memoir, published five years after his defection, is a fascinating study in misdirection, not to mention settling old scores. Massaged by his Russian handlers,  if not entirely ghostwritten under KGB discipline, My Silent War captures something of Philby's own voice, preening and petulant, completely self-absorbed. His justifications are without irony, maintaining a Stalinist fiction. He's impervious to his own contradictions, to his personal history, let alone the historical confusions of his own time. The point of the exercise seems to be embarrassing as many of his professional contemporaries as he can, Angleton at CIA, his MI5 interrogators, who never managed to catch him in a lie. More importantly, from the point of view of an analyst or debriefer, Philby's account leads even a more careful reader away from certain observable evidence, plants false flags, creates suspicion, upsets the commonly accepted, and afflicts the comfortable. It's intentional mischief.


III  UN-AMERICAN

When he heard from MI6 that Philby was a proven traitor, J. Edgar Hoover is supposed to have said, "Jesus Christ only had twelve, and one of them was a double." There have been serious spy-hunters, and there have always been fools. Hoover may have seen Reds under the bed, and he inflated the FBI's successes, but he wasn't the hysteric many people take him for. We've got other contenders for that office.

Joe McCarthy stands in for a lot of the excesses of the Red Scare, and he bullied plenty of people, both in and out of government, until he made the mistake of going after the U.S. Army, and Eisenhower quit tip-toeing around him. Not that Ike disagreed with McCarthy on principle, most like, and Nixon owed his vice-presidency to Republican leadership brokering a deal with the party's Right, but Ike wouldn't countenance an attack on the military, his family, and the architect of his own wartime victories. McCarthy's day was done.

McCarthyism, though, casts a long shadow. It was the kiss of death for many a Democratic candidate to be labeled soft on Communism. David Halberstam makes a good case that it kept Jack Kennedy from pulling the plug on American support for South Viet Nam. And in a very real sense, Nixon's engagement with China was only possible in light of Nixon's track record as an anti-Communist.

On the other hand, we have the enormous damage done by smear campaigns, gossip, fear-mongering, and the blacklist. Public shaming, livelihoods destroyed, suicides, families broken apart. It was a cover, too, for Jew-baiting and union-busting, the fluoridation scare, the polio "monkey" serum, the mongrelization of white people. It was all them godless Commies behind it.


IV   THE RUSSIANS

Given that McCarthy was a blowhard and an opportunist, it's easy to forget that the Soviet Union mounted a determined espionage effort against the U.S., aimed specifically at the atom program, but more generally at targets of opportunity, whether they were Communist sympathizers or just somebody in a position of compromise. Both the Rosenbergs and the Alger Hiss case drew enormous attention, protests that they were being railroaded, on the one hand, and people wanting their scalps, on the other. With the declassification and release of the VENONA intercepts, two things show in bold relief: first, that Hiss and the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty of spying for the Russians, and secondly, that much of the agitation in their favor was orchestrated by the Kremlin.

This is not a settled argument, by the by. You can still get a lot of grief and ridicule from the uninformed or conspiracy-minded, who'll label it deviant history, and accuse you of being a provocateur or a CIA stooge. It's an orthodoxy practiced by both sides, Left and Right, that only the pure of heart deserve a hearing. It's essentially Stalinist revisionism.

Of course there was a climate of hysteria. There was also a genuine Russian spy presence. Or more than one. KGB, state security, and GRU, military intelligence, ran compartmentalized operations. Historically, they've been rivals. KGB is generally acknowledged to have better tradecraft, GRU has been know to trip over its own feet, but whether they've worked in harness or at cross-purposes, we're talking about their cumulative score.

They've made their mistakes, they've had their successes. From penetrations (Ames and Hansen), to Wet Work (the Skripal poisonings, Litvinenko), disinformation campaigns, false flag attacks - the techniques vary, over time, as the technical resources develop. The constant, or throughline, is disruption.


V    TRUMP
  
Which brings us to the present day. The conflicting narratives about Russian interference in the 2016 election are about whose ox is being gored, but a lot of the vocabulary sounds familiar. Witch hunt, whistleblower. and so forth. I'm not going to try and sort it out.

Whether you believe there's a Deep State conspiracy (or slow-motion coup), or if you've decided the guy's a dangerous moron, is completely irrelevant. The point is that the Russians have succeeded beyond any and all expectations. Nobody could possibly imagine this would bear such poisoned fruit. I have friends on the Right who are utterly convinced that the Trump opposition is an attempted coup, and these people aren't knuckle-draggers, they're by and large intelligent, articulate people. In equal measure, I'm not alone in entertaining the idea Trump could be in the pocket of the Russian mob, or the Mexican cartels, or whoever - or that the chaos alone is reason to shit-can him. But nobody in the Kremlin is enough of a Satanic genius to have come up with this scenario. The end result is happy accident. They can't believe their luck.

I have one last comment, though. Looking at the historical record, we might call Ellsberg a hero and Snowden a dupe, even a traitor. Or it could be the other way around. The question is, what do you do? If you're trapped in this situation, if you begin to wonder whether you're the Good German, or an enabler, where do you go? Nixon demanded Cox be fired. Richardson, his AG, resigned. Where do you draw the line, and quit, when do you fall on your sword? It's no easy or obvious choice. We like to think we'd do the right thing, that we'd choose the moral high ground. Which is where, exactly? 

"You'll die on the gallows, or of the pox," Lord Sandwich once remarked to John Wilkes, and Wilkes answered, "That depends on whether I embrace your lordship's principles, or your mistress."

5 comments:

R.T. Lawton said...

Very good, David. Keep them coming. And, yes, the old Russian wisdom is right on target.

Robert Lopresti said...

I appreciate the comparison of Snowden and Ellsberg. I find myself occasionally reminding people that one of the principles of civil disobedience is that you DON'T try to escape punishment. Gandhi, for instance, demanded the maximum punishment available.

Back in the seventies a guy named Hirschman wrote an excellent book called Exit Voice and Loyalty. He pointed out that in a country with a parliamentary system if someone at the cabinet level resigned in protest over a policy he might very well be the next prime minister if popular opinion decided he was right. But in a presidential system such as ours, the rare protest resigner was dead in the water, career over.

Eve Fisher said...

Great job, David. I'm with you about Snowdon: he's a slightly less egomaniac version of Assange. And considering that Assange helped Snowdon find his Moscow home... No use for either of them.
In any case, you're absolutely right, the Russians have exceeded all they hoped for in 2016. And they had help, including but not limited to:
Paul Manafort (Worked for Putin's candidate in the Ukraine, owed millions to Russian oligarchs, paid them with campaign information),
Carter Page (who desperately tried to become a Russian agent),
Michael Flynn (paid advisor to Russian Television),
Rex Tillerson (received the Order of Friendship from Russia, 2013)
Donald Trump Jr. (““Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,”) and a number of other people that candidate and President Trump hired for his campaign and his White House staff.
And we also know that the Trump campaign made the RNC change the Republican platform to gut what had been Republican party line to stand against Russia in the Ukraine. We also know about the millions of Russian money that went into GOP campaigns, including Mitch McConnell's, about Maria Butina and her infiltration of the NRA and the GOP, and about the fact that the Russians did indeed interfere with the United States 2016 presidential election.

Dixon Hill said...

Spot-on, buddy. All the way down the line, imho.

Leigh Lundin said...

Interesting contrasting of Elsberg and Snowden, David.

I'm sickened every time I hear or read the phrase 'the Mueller Hoax'. Given that such a small percentage of Americans have actually read the report, it's likely nearly all of its critics haven't opened page 1. Once into it, it becomes painfully obvious Russian Military Intelligence offices launched multiple lines of attack that the campaign staff bought heavily into. There's no question it's not a hoax, but a sad portrait of how political greed and power can corrupt an entire political system.