RUSSIAGATE BEGAN WITH SNOWDEN
The ability of Russian intelligence agencies to penetrate and attack US systems, including the Presidential election that elected Donald Trump, was enhanced by the debriefings in Moscow of Edward Snowden, a man still regarded in many quarters as a hero.
The enhanced capacity of Russian hackers to meddle in the US Presidential elections and to penetrate US electronic communication systems was due largely to debriefings of the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden by FSB officials in Moscow, secret reports by US intelligence operatives have revealed.
Snowden, a former CIA operative and civilian contractor, fled the US in May 2013 and flew to Hong Kong where he revealed thousands of classified NSA documents. He was portrayed as a whistle blower for revealing previously secret details of the US government’s mass surveillance programme. His disclosures were published in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the New York Times and Der Spiegel.
One month after leaving the US, he flew into Moscow’s Shermetyevo Airport and has been in Russia ever since. The reports record that Snowden defected to Moscow with critical assistance from WikiLeaks and Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed state TV channel. The entire operation was planned by the FSB, successor to the KGB. WikiLeaks acted as a Russian intelligence agent assisting not only in Russian active measures but also in a hardcore recruitment operation. Julian Assange is described in the memo as a long-time FSB asset. Russia Today, the successor of Soviet Gosteleradio, acted – like its predecessor – as a front for Russian intelligence.
The memos (see accompanying diary) were sent to senior US intelligence officials by a Russian agent with close contacts inside the FSB. But even though the CIA and FBI were warned well in advance (as early as August 2013), Russian operatives were still able to hack into US political systems during the 2016 Presidential election.
Within the FSB, bringing Snowden to Russia was hailed as a major intelligence success. Within just one month it was declared that substantial progress had been made in inducing him to co-operate and share all his secrets.
The reports chronicle the debriefings of Snowden by Eugene Kaspersky, head of Kaspersky Laboratories, a Russian company that manufactures spy software used for cyber espionage. The interviews were conducted by the FSB in Moscow and Kaspersky was present and involved in some of them. According to Russian intelligence sources, the FSB made clear that they had two main objectives: firstly, to identify possible penetration by the US National Security Agency and Signals Intelligence into Russian electronic communications and secondly to break into the US electronic communication system.
“One of the top priorities of the FSB in debriefing Snowden is to see if he can help to electronically penetrate targets in the US,” stated the memo.
The first aim was due to Kaspersky’s discovery of a new spy software in the HDD firmware. The second objective developed, in the Autumn of 2014, into a story about an unidentified (suspected Russian) mini submarine, which was detected off the shore of Sweden but never caught. It appears the Russians were looking for US-NATO communications hubs to possibly plug in.
The documents about Snowden’s collusion with the FSB were submitted to the US intelligence team who were investigating the defection of the former National Security Agency contractor. They provide a remarkable insight into how the Russians were able to expand and develop their cyber-capability and later succeed in disrupting the US election campaign.
During the debriefings the FSB made it clear that they were also keen to use Snowden as a spotter identifying American targets, such as dissident former NSA employees, for future recruitment as Russian spies. This reminded those involved of the US TV series ‘The Americans’. Eugene Kaspersky participated in those debriefings and played a key role in evaluating Snowden’s information and in making it possible to use in Russian intelligence operations.
Then in early 2015, Kaspersky Labs “suddenly” discovered a “super sophisticated system” of cyber espionage in which spy software was hidden in the firmware of hard drives manufactured by top companies including Western Digital, Seagate, and Toshiba. According to Kaspersky Labs, they found computers infected by the spy software in about 30 countries, but most of them were located in Russia, China and the Middle East, allegedly put there by the NSA.
Since the Snowden debriefings which started in 2013, the efficiency of the Russian hacking operations in the US dramatically advanced. Hence, in 2014, it was claimed that the Russian hackers even penetrated the While House. There were reports about penetration into the Pentagon. And in 2016, the Russians achieved unprecedented success in its efforts to penetrate the NSA, the Democratic National Committee and senior Democratic Party operatives.
According to media reports, an NSA affiliate in early 2016 took highly classified information home and placed it on a home computer, where it was stolen by the Russian hackers with the help of Kaspersky anti-virus software installed on the computer. It was an unprecedented breakthrough in the history of the Soviet/Russian efforts to penetrate the NSA. Nothing even remotely similar had happened since the establishment of the agency.
And then in 2016, Russian intelligence agents broke into DNC servers and fanned the stolen information through two parties that had been so helpful in whisking Snowden to Moscow – WikiLeaks and Russia Today. This evolved into the Russian meddling into the US presidential elections. According to the intelligence reports sent to the FBI and CIA. it appears that Snowden’s debriefings facilitated Russian meddling into the US presidential elections.
Despite the advanced warning passed to the US intelligence community in August 2013, the Russians successfully did exactly as the reports warned. Yet, Kaspersky Lab anti-virus software continued to be used by US Government agencies until December 2017.
On June 14, 2013, United States federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Snowden, charging him with theft of government property, and two counts of violating the Espionage Act through unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.
The memos also make clear why Snowden is not coming back. They report that the FSB reached the point of no return with Snowden quite early on. “They cannot extradite him to the US because he knows their secrets. Snowden’s extradition to the US is possible only in case of a major political upheaval in Russia similar to the collapse of the Soviet Union.”