The So-Called Huawei Scandal and the Snowden Operation

We should spy on China. And Russia. And Iran. And plenty of other countries too. They are our political, diplomatic and economic competitors and enemies. And they spy on us. If we stop, they win. Who wants that?

The latest revelations based on the documents stolen by Edward Snowden, and published in Germany’s Der Spiegel and the New York Times, mark a scandalous new turn in the nihilistic, self-indulgent and treasonable activities of his “Snowdenista” followers.

It highlights the weakness which I outline in my e-book on Snowden. He and his followers have never explained why it is in the public interest to reveal how democracies spy on dictatorships.

Is it because they actually want China to triumph over the United States and its allies? Do they hate the West so much that they want its downfall? Do they deny that China spies on the United States? Do they deny that China is a threat? Are they arguing for unilateral disarmament? If they are willing to reveal the way that we spy on China, why not also give away the friend-or-foe identifiers for our warplanes, or the acoustic signatures of our submarines? There are only three possibilities. One is that they are naïve. Another is that they are reckless. A third is that they are working for our enemies.

I am not a die-hard defender of official secrecy. I have broken stories myself based on highly classified information and I have taken great care to protect my sources. A healthy tussle between journalists who want to expose wrongdoing and officials who want to maintain confidentiality is the hallmark of a democracy.

I have some sympathy with those who worry about the creation and use of digital weapons. It took us decades to reach strategic stability in nuclear weapons, and we probably need a similar approach to cyber-warfare. I can also see why people believe that America needs to discuss more carefully and skeptically the way in which meta-data and data are collected at home. In the end, I think that the public will want this information to be accessible for rapid investigation after a crime or terrorist attack, but the broad arrangements of how it is collected and warehoused, and on what mixture of probable cause, hunch and necessity it should be accessed, should not be secret.

But this is different. If you accept – as do most Americans, Britons and other citizens of Western countries– that we need to defend ourselves, then you necessarily accept that we have secrets. And if we have secrets, they must be protected. If you have spy agencies, then you necessarily assume and accept that they conduct espionage. And if you sabotage that intelligence activity, you are hurting your country as surely as if you gave away military secrets. I have covered intelligence and security issues for 30 years. If someone came to me with the material published by the Snowdenista fan club, I would call the police, and I would hope that the people peddling these secrets were arrested, prosecuted, jailed, and convicted.

Just for the record, there is nothing scandalous or surprising about an intelligence agency spying on a private company. In the spy world, targets come in all shapes and sizes. If you believe that a gangster, terrorist or foreign spy is working within a commercial organisation, you will endevour to break into his communications there, just as you would if he was in any other organization. And the company itself may be a legitimate target. It may be breaching sanctions, laundering money, or have close ties to another adversary. One of the most ludicrous episodes in the Snowden saga came when Glenn Greenwald excoriated the NSA and Sweden for conducting espionage against Russia’s Gazprom. He appeared not realize that this was not “just a company” but the energy arm of the Russian state. Sweden has every reason to spy on Gazprom, just as America has every reason to spy on Huawei.

It would indeed be a scandal if it turned out that NSA was stealing commercial secrets from foreign companies and giving to American companies. But despite having a free run through the NSA’s archives, Snowden was unable to find anything giving the slightest sign that this has actually happened (just as, incidentally, there is nothing in the Snowden revelations showing that the NSA deliberately or systematically broke the law or intruded on Americans’ privacy). As I remind readers in my book, none other than former CIA chief Jim Woolsey wrote an article in the Wall St Journal more than a decade ago, telling Europeans that American intelligence agencies had spied on European companies and would continue to do so in future – so long as they made a habit of paying bribes and breaching international sanctions.

China is a revolting communist dictatorship. It runs a chain of slave labor camps (Laogai) which have incarcerated 50m people. It persecutes religious believers, dissidents and minorities; occupies Tibet; and threatens its neighbors, notably our ally Taiwan. Its rulers live in luxury, protected by a corrupt and repressive legal system. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate espionage target. Huawei is the epitome of Chinese commercial power overseas. There is every reason to investigate its links to the Chinese state, military and Communist Party. And if it turns out it can be used to spy on decision-makers in China, so much the better. The code-crackers and hackers of the NSA and its British counterparts deserve medals (awarded in secret), not public condemnation.

It is particularly infuriating that the Snowdenistas’ casual sabotage has rendered useless capabilities which we taxpayers have paid for over the years, at the cost of tens of billions of dollars, and millions of man-hours. The smirking perpetrators show not the slightest contrition for their role in the greatest disaster in Western intelligence history. They may believe they are making history. I would call it infamy. 

About the Author(s)

Edward Lucas

Senior Editor at The Economist and Author of "The Snowden Operation: Inside the West's Greatest Intelligence Disaster" Follow him on Twitter (@edwardlucas).