Before analyzing the activities and assessing the ethics of any intelligence organization, it is first necessary to remember that intelligence organizations are secretive by nature and it’s impossible to assess their methods in full given most countries’ secrecy laws.
This is especially the case with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Much like its predecessor, the KGB, its activities continue to be troublesome for diplomats, journalists, and citizens alike. The Russian government uses propaganda, deception, and manipulation to a much higher degree and with great effectiveness. The Russian surveillance state, largely powered by the FSB and driven by the threat of terrorism, is resurgent and becoming ever more intrusive.
One example of Russia’s use of deception and propaganda, according to David Frum on The Atlantic website on April 18, 2014, even went so far as to include the notorious former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in a propaganda stunt (Q & A forum) with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the session, which was televised on Russian television, Edward Snowden challenged Putin on government surveillance in Russia. To this, Putin simply stated: “We don’t have a mass system for such interception and according to our law it cannot exist.” This is typical of the deception that the government uses and this statement was widely regarded by experts and watch-dog agencies as false.
It would also be foolish to assert that the American intelligence establishment does not continue to engage in covert operations involving ethically questionable methods given the information available. However, it has found itself at the heart of major controversies concerning its collection methods just in the last decade which have forced greater transparency and greater debate, both internally and externally. An analysis of the outcome of the controversy over the NSA’s collection of bulk data, for example, sparked a greater discussion on the legality of the NSA’s collection programs and took place both within Congress and the public media. The constitutional legality of these covert programs caused a lot of problems for the government in the courts. The President, the Director of National Intelligence, and other senior officials were made to answer for the programs before the Supreme Court and Congress. (Mornin, 2014)
This level of transparency cannot and likely will never be found in Russia. Political and legal discourse between academia, the justice system, and the general public is certainly lacking as well. The evidence is clear: as noted in the Atlantic article cited previously regarding Putin’s interaction with Edward Snowden:
“Russian journalists will not ‘revisit’ (as he puts it) the truthfulness of Putin’s answers. Russian journalists who do that end up dead, in at least 56 cases since 1992. Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who pressed Putin hardest, was shot dead in her own apartment building in 2006, after years of repeated arrests, threats, and in one case, attempted poisoning.” (The Atlantic, April 2014)
Detailed statistics provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) do indeed support these claims. (Akhmednabiyev, Beketov & Gekkiyev)
It wouldn’t be completely inaccurate to think of Russia as an American surveillance state on PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs). It’s asserted that “over the last two years, the Kremlin has transformed Russia into a surveillance state—at a level that would have made the Soviet KGB (Committe for State Security) envious.” (Borogan and Soldatov, 2013) The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi demonstrated Russia’s resurgent surveillance state. The System of Operative-Investigative Measures (SORM) was Russia’s strategy to legally analyze all electronic traffic and it was used to its maximum extent at the Games. The U.S. Department of State issued travel warnings to Americans traveling to Sochi to watch the Games, giving advice such as “sanitizing” electronic devices, restraining from using local wireless internet, and considering the use of “burn phones” and destroying materials when leaving the country. Joshua Kopstein noted in ‘Sochi’s Other Legacy’ that drones, soldiers, surveillance blimps, thousands of cameras, and high-tech scanning devices were also used. (New Yorker, February 2014)
Naturally, this surveillance state extends far beyond Sochi. According to Soldatov and Borogan, the Russian government has tightened its grip on the country in the name of national security and safety. Seven investigative and security agencies have been granted permission to legally intercept everything from phone calls to emails, with the FSB establishing the procedures. What’s more, these agencies are only required to show warrants (once obtained) to their superiors in the FSB; the parties being investigated have no right to see the warrant, unlike in the United States. The FSB itself has control centers directly connected to computer servers and their usage of SORM systems has increased. These surveillance methods are not restricted to Russian citizens, either.
British Journalist Luke Harding claimed in 2014 that he was constantly followed around Moscow when he lived there, his flat was repeatedly broken into by FSB agents (who purposely left clues to let him know who it was), and that Russian agents made it clear that they were eavesdropping once by cutting phone service after he made jokes about President Putin. The author was finally kicked out of Moscow in 2011 after living there for four years. Aside from this, it is clear that other states, such as the British government, know that the FSB targets foreign diplomats using the same techniques.
The FSB and the Russian surveillance state, driven by the Putin administration’s Soviet-style political maneuvers, has seen a resurgence particularly in the last decade. This is a divergent path from that of the American intelligence community, which, while it may be no less controversial in it activities around the globe, is certainly more beholden to domestic laws and the system of checks and balances hallmarked in American democracy, thereby rendering it open to debate and criticism.
Akhmednabiyev, A., Beketov, M., & Gekkiyev, K. (2015). 56 journalists killed in russia since 1992/Motive confirmed. Statistics compiled and featured on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) website. Retrieved from: https://cpj.org/killed/europe/russia/
Borogan, I. & Soldatov, A. (Fall, 2013). Russia’s Surveillance State. Secrecy and Security, World Policy Journal, Volume 30, Number 9 (Fall, 2013). Retrieved from: http://www.worldpolicy.org/journal/fall2013
Frum, D. (April 18, 2014). The lies edward snowden tells. Article featured on The Atlantic website. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/04/the-lies- edward-snowden-tells/360893/
Harding, L. (Nov. 19, 2014). Spies, Sleepers and Hitmen: How the Soviet Union’s KGB Never Went Away. Article featured by The Guardian (November, 2014). Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/19/spies-spooks-hitmen-kgb-never-went-away russia-putin
Kopstein, J. (Feb. 13, 2014). Sochi’s Other Legacy. Article featured on The New Yorker website. Retrieved from: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/sochis-other-legacy
Mornin, J.D. (Aug, 2014). NSA metadata collection and the fourth amendment, 29 Berkeley Tech. L.J. (2014). Retrieved from: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/btlj/vol29/iss4/19