FSB’s Snowden War:Using the American NSA against Itself


Russia’s understanding of information warfare must be understood in the context of Russian statism. Russian leaders, particularly President Vladimir Putin, view state power as essential to national health and broadly-defined state power. The state attempts to maintain absolute privilege over rights, ownership, and power, and often confers these things to others as gifts or presents. (Jurevicius, 2015)

Since Putin’s rise to power, exclusive private ownership within the state has been weakened and the state has increasingly used its now massive media industry as a means of influencing both the domestic population as well as foreign audiences. (Kiriya & Degtereva, 2010) In terms of foreign influence, information plays a critical role in Russian political and military strategy. The Russian military divides information operations into two means of attack: “information-technological means,” which include attacks on national critical infrastructure and cyber-attaches; and information-perceptual means, which include propaganda, perception management, disinformation, psychological operations, and deception. (Liaropoulos, 2007) Russia’s exploitation of US intelligence disclosures falls within this second set of means as a form of propaganda. While the Russian state has always used propaganda as a means of ensuring Russian security, examination of this tactic is under-appreciated in the modern day. (Stewart, 2014)

In relation to the West, Russian information operations, often called Information Warfare by Russian strategists, fill a critical strategic role in all phases of conflict. In a conflict involving kinetic operations, information warfare is used as a force multiplier “whose purpose is to guarantee the achievement of the goals of the operation” and is often seen as most effective in targeting enemy command and control structures, as well as enemy decision-making. (Thomas, 1996) Tellingly however, the Cold War notion of information warfare as a low-intensity form of conflict targeting the enemy’s civilian population and its public awareness, as well as “state administrative systems, production control systems, scientific control, cultural control, and so forth” remains a key feature of Russian thinking today regarding information operations. (Thomas, 1996) It is not that other nations do not accept this anymore as a part of modern warfare, but rather only Russia is so openly adamant about the properness of such techniques. In 2013, the Russian Chief of the General Staff wrote that modern conflict includes the “broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures.” (Jones, 2014) Russian information warfare thinking has thus evolved beyond Soviet-era concepts into a fully modern doctrine, particularly in the more intense forms of conflict.

Critical to the effective use of Russian propaganda are its intelligence agencies, particularly the FSB. One high profile example of FSB media manipulation is the allegation that the FSB controls “troll armies,” a term used to describe an estimated 200,000 FSB employees who are tasked with flooding social networks, Internet forums, and media comment sections with pro-Russian content. (Jurevicius, 2015) It is worth noting that this is but one aspect of the FSB’s control of Russian media. While it is difficult to ascertain precisely what links exist between the FSB and Russian media corporations formally, the FSB’s extensive power makes it clear that FSB-directed propaganda is likely a critical component of many Russian media operations.

In response to the expansion of US intelligence because of the Global War on Terror, Paul Todd and Jonathan Bloch wrote “just as the Cold War provided a legitimizing framework for the unprincipled and often counterproductive waging of covert warfare, so the dangers of a new era of intelligence ‘blowback’ are all too clear.” (Todd & Bloch, 2003) Russian media propaganda against US intelligence services makes use of such allegations – of vastly expanded and illegal American power to collect information against foreign and domestic targets. While it is possible to draw from a range of incidents the disclosures of Edward Snowden, a former NSA system administrator, has arguably been the most controversial and impactful.

Reporting on the NSA’s requirement to end its collection of telephony metadata as stipulated by the USA Freedom Act, one grouping Russia Today articles highlighted the conflict between privacy advocates and US lawmakers, writing “while privacy advocates described the change as only a single step with the prospect of more progress to come, lawmakers adopted a tone of finality.” (RT, 2015) Another grouping of articles aimed at demonstrating the loophole the NSA technically used to continue collection against US citizens. Finally a third implied that the vast metadata collection program did not provide the NSA with any operational or analytic value. (RT, 2015) These article groups demonstrate not only Russia’s main aim in reporting on the Snowden leaks so as to undermine American image on the international stage, they are also an abstract attempt to achieve an important Russian foreign policy goal: using the expansive NSA collection effort targeted against US citizens to positively contrast with Russian maneuvers on the global stage. In the context of America always making charges against Russia for using draconian measures to limit its citizens’ rights and invade their privacy, these reports are designed to highlight US hypocrisy and sow the seeds of discord and doubt among American allies about any so-called US moral supremacy.

Falling approval ratings of the US Government also help determine the impact of FSB propagandizing the Snowden leaks. After Snowden leaked the disclosures, US President Barack Obama’s approval ratings plummeted. (CNN, 2014) Gallup poll data show now that American confidence in all three branches of the US Government is declining, with the Supreme Court and Congress being at all-time lows in 2015. (McCarthy, 2014) In contrast, a recent Economist/YouGov poll found that 78% of Americans view President Putin as a stronger leader than President Obama. (The Economist/YouGov, 2014) A final area of impact to consider is European reactions to the leaks. As with the American public, European publics were outraged. Not only by the perceived US hypocrisy, but also by the alleged NSA collection against European diplomats and elites. (Network of European Union Centers of Excellence, 2014) These disclosures have had a negative impact on US-European relations, as the EU has become increasingly reluctant to impose further economic sanctions on Russia despite US pressure. (Harress, 2015) Furthermore, European leaders are showing an increased willingness to cooperate with Russia with regard to military operations and objectives in Syria. (Bloomberg, 2015) While the reasons for these developments are complex and multi-level, the damage done to US-European relations has absolutely been impacted by explicit Russian intelligence efforts to ‘refocus’ media perception on American image and global status.

It is important to note that this form of intelligence media propaganda is not effective in isolation. It was not Russian propaganda that caused widespread distrust of the US government. However, the FSB and Russian media conglomerates are able to effectively profit from the damning Snowden disclosures by casting the US in a suspicious, negative light, while at the same time minimizing its own supposed flaws and political sins. More study should be devoted in future to this softer but still significant aspect of US-Russian relational conflict.


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