According to an apocryphal story the editor of a national UK newspaper took his astrologer to one side and sacked her. When she complained that she hadn’t seen it coming he replied that was the reason for sacking her. I’m reminded of this employment paradox whenever I read the articles about Edward Snowden on the run from his ex-bosses at the NSA. (And if you don’t know who Edward Snowden is then you need to get someone to lift up that rock you’re trapped under.)
Snowden was at work one day helping to spy on everybody in the world, the next day he turns up in Hong Kong with thousands of dirty secrets the NSA was hoping would never see the light of day. What followed was an extraordinary display of international long-armery. Hong Kong came under pressure to extradite Snowden, then the Chinese came under pressure to put Hong Kong under pressure to extradite Snowden.
And what did the man himself do? Jumped on a plane to Russia and redirected the international long-arm tactics towards Moscow, who came under pressure to hand him over. The President of Bolivia Evo Morales had his plane forced out of the skies when it was rumoured Snowden was aboard, hidden in a suitcase being smuggled to South America. The incredible ability for the US security apparatus to feel the collars of air traffic control in France, Portugal, Spain and Austria was disturbing in its sneakyness.
But still, in spite of PRISM and XKEYSTROKE and all the other bits of NSA chicanery, they didn’t know Snowden was about to flee the US with a truck load of top secret documents and didn’t know, once he was in Hong Kong, that he’d booked a flight to Moscow.
Well I have a theory. I think I know what went wrong. I think I know because something similar happened to me earlier this week. The NSA’s broadband connection went down. It happens. Your internet connection drops a couple of times so the local telephone exchange restricts your connection speed to ‘ensure line stability’. (Ignoring the fact that the line dropping for a few seconds now and again isn’t as inconvenient as having your connection lowered to 18kbps for three days.) Imagine the array of supercomputers at the NSA headquarters in Maryland hoovering up trillions of emails and web searches when suddenly the line drops and they can’t even open their own home page. I can imagine the alarm bell would sound something like this:
“Line’s gone down again.”
“Okay. Ring Godfrey in Cheltenham. Ask GCHQ to take over for a few hours.”
“GCHQ? Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes, I know they spend all their time bugging the French and the Turks, but we pay them money for this sort of emergency. There isn’t another G20 Summit until September so they should have a bit of capacity. By the way where’s Snowden today, does anyone know?”
They need to learn a lesson from the FBI. Now they know how to ensure a good line connection. When Michele Catalano’s husband in Long Island searched for ‘pressure cooker bomb’ and ‘backpack’ police from Nassau and Suffolk Counties were onto him before he could even think about getting a Ryanair flight to Hong Kong. It all turned out to be perfectly innocent and the family ended up explaining to the officers how to cook quinoa (in a pressure cooker). But it’s a reminder that next time you search Amazon with keywords and phrases like ‘blow up something’, ‘Anarchists Cookbook’ and ‘copper bottomed frying pan’ the FBI will be listening and responding.
But not the NSA. And Snowden must have known it. He must have been accustomed to the poor service delivery of the NSA’s ISP and waited, like all good spies do. Wait and watch, recognise the patterns, predict the outcomes and then . . . strike. He’s off. Before the connection is restored he’s in a hotel room Someplace Else.
Of course the real explanation is probably slightly more prosaic. He waited until the NSA let its CryptoKids have a play for a few hours and cleared off while they were downloading the app for PimpMyGoogleGlass. Crypto Cat might have a lot to answer for. Maybe she should be taken to one side and questioned. Bet she doesn’t see that coming either.
Footnote: having used various search terms like ‘NSA headquarters’, ‘Kelvin Mackenzie’, and read about the alleged quinoa bombers in the Guardian, the next time you read about me is when my dessicated body turns up in the boot of a Toyota Rav 4 parked at Blackpool Airport. No doubt the coroner’s report will conclude accidental death, nothing suspicious and the owner of the Rav 4 will be contesting a £3000 parking fine for staying longer than thirty minutes.