While most people's eyes are locked on the massive ramifications of former NSA officer Edward Snowden's disclosure of the agency's Prism program, a group of intelligence and counter-espionage officials will be looking at Snowden himself and asking themselves, "What really makes this guy tick, and why has he done this?"
As well as looking at the facts about Snowden, they will use their judgment, experience, and imagination to fill in gaps of missing information and to extrapolate conclusions from scant data. When I was an MI6 field operative, I had to deal with data on thousands of foreign individuals, to ascertain whether I could recruit any of these individuals as covert spies. Very often, I had as little information on these people as we do on Edward Snowden. Nevertheless, just one paragraph of information about an individual can be enough to start making judgments about that person. And after all, a judgment -- even if it is partially or wholly wrong -- is better than no judgment at all, because it gives one a starting point from which we can correct or refine that judgment when more data about the individual becomes available. Profiling individuals is therefore part science, part art of the possible, and part work in progress.
What do we know about Snowden? He's 29 years old, studied computing in college but failed to complete his courses, underwent training and selection for U.S. Special Forces but was medically discharged after he broke both legs, applied to the NSA and was given a job as a security guard, applied to the CIA and was tasked on IT security, left the Agency in 2009 to take up a more lucrative job with consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton where he was seconded as a computer specialist to the NSA, contacted Britain's Guardian newspaper and told two journalists all about Prism, and fled to Hong Kong because in his words the Chinese city has "a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent." During his interviews with Guardian journalists, Snowden said, "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things. I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded." He added that he had an "obligation to help free people from oppression", and instructed the Guardian to release his identity. He concluded that he knew he'd never see his loved ones again. Snowden's now gone missing, though is believed to still be in Hong Kong.
When I look at the above reported brief facts, there are many questions and possibilities that nag me. His career progression suggests to me that it is possible he is a quitter, has macho aspirations that are at odds with his somewhat more mundane skills as a computer technician, and that after his discharge from the army he tried to fuel these aspirations in the NSA and CIA, only to find out that both agencies were only willing to employ him in jobs that were nothing like those of Jason Bourne. It is probable that bred resentment within him toward not only his immediate employers, but also the broader United States special operations and intelligence community that he wished to be part of. At some point he probably came to the conclusion, "They don't want me; so I don't want them." If accurate, that means his declaration that he blew the lid on Prism for the good of American people is actually a smokescreen to hide a self-centered grievance.
Like other public sector workers who walk away from their government jobs with chips on their shoulders, it is also possible that Snowden exchanged his loyalty to the state with loyalty to cash. It's reported that his job at Booz Allen Hamilton earned him a very lucrative salary that was no doubt significantly higher than he received in IT and security at the CIA and NSA. But if that's true, why would he throw that away in favor of telling the truth about Prism? Perhaps I'm wrong and Snowden really is a crusader with a cause. Maybe, but there are more red flags.
Why did Snowden flee to Hong Kong, rather than to somewhere without an extradition treaty in place with the U.S.? He could have done so knowing that Beijing has the right to block requests for extradition, but that would mean that Snowden was completely at the mercy of Beijing. And upon arrival in Hong Kong, why did he go out of his way to make the bizarre declaration that Hong Kong was a place that encourages free speech and political dissent? Alright, Hong Kong is the most Western-friendly face of China, but it's still China and part of one of the most oppressive and intrusive regimes in the world. The United States constitutionally encourages liberty and political debate. China does not.
And why did Snowden instruct the Guardian newspaper to release his identity? Because he wanted the world to know that he's willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of the greater cause? This could be true, though he's not currently standing on the steps of the White House with arms outstretched, waiting to be taken into custody as a noble martyr. Again his true motivation may be driven by a sense of dislocation from the secret world he wanted to be part of. By supplying his name, he's sticking two fingers up at the United States intelligence community. Another possibility is that in supplying his name, he's added further fuel to a fire that's blazing across the political landscape of America.
It doesn't add up that Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA's Prism program solely because he is a selfless moral crusader. And it only partly adds up that Snowden is an aggrieved traitor who rashly threw away his lucrative job and went on the run in China.
There is a third possibility that could make sense:
Against a backdrop of scathing U.S criticism of China's cyber attacks against America, China decided to hit back at America with an clever tactic: credibly expose American espionage activities that undermine the constitutional rights of American citizens, and thereby get America to tear apart the NSA to the extent the agency's future capabilities will be diminished. Edward Snowden was profiled by Chinese intelligence agencies while he was working at Booz Allen. The Chinese assessed that he had grievances against the U.S. state and was also financially motivated. They recruited him using cash. The deal was he had to whistle blow the Prism program by talking to the reputable Guardian newspaper. He also had to reveal his identity to further his credibility. In return he'd be given a comfortable life in China. Any U.S. attempts to extradite Snowden would be blocked by Beijing.
Like all theories, time and further information will prove whether it's right, partially right, or wrong. But if I am right, that means Snowden is just a pawn, and China has put America in checkmate.
About The Author: Matthew Dunn was a former MI6 intelligence officer who operated in hostile overseas locations where he recruited and ran spies. He is the author of the Spycatcher series of espionage novels, including the forthcoming SLINGSHOT (to be published June 27 2013, William Morrow).