Plenty of reason to doubt all involved in latest Snowden 'scoop'

The Sunday Times says Edward Snowden's files are in the hands of Russian and Chinese officials. The former NSA contractor's defenders say they couldn't be. Neither side is convincing.

Christopher Lane/AP Images for The New Yorker
Edward Snowden talks with Jane Mayer of The New York via satellite at the 15th Annual New Yorker Festival last October.

Have the allegedly "unbreakably encrypted" National Security Agency files that Edward Snowden absconded with in 2013 been obtained and broken open by Russia and China? That is certainly possible, and should be the operating assumption for the US and other governments whose intelligence secrets and methods were compromised by Mr. Snowden, a former NSA contractor now living in Russia.

But a Sunday Times article making that case – and reporting that US and British spies and intelligence assets have been put in danger by Snowden – doesn't do a good job of it.

The Times cites a variety of anonymous UK sources that said China and Russia had obtained and decrypted documents taken by Snowden, that spies have been pulled out of countries as a result, and that "Moscow gained access to more than one million classified files."

The sourcing of The Sunday Times story is exceedingly thin. It all relies on anonymous officials. While that isn't necessarily a problem – Snowden's advocates like Glenn Greenwald grant anonymity too, including at first to Snowden – what you should look for in such pieces is the depth of supporting detail.

Did the reporter get access to documents that back up the claims? Are details provided that might support them? In this case, no.

One anonymous British official said: "His documents were encrypted but they weren't completely secure and we have now seen our agents and assets being targeted." Another told the Times: "In some cases the agencies have been forced to intervene and lift their agents from operations to stop them being identified and killed."

True? Hard to say from the outside.

But it's certainly a wise assumption for the US, Britain, and other allies caught up in Snowden's leaks to make. Ever since Snowden fled the US in May 2013, they have had to act as if potentially dangerous secrets have been compromised for over two years now. They have probably been getting people who may have been compromised out of harms way, even absent certainty of what the Russians know.

The assertion that Russia and China have access to his files and the ability to decrypt them – and they contain information damaging to US intelligence and security interests – is hardly a long shot.

Not everyone agrees.

"Snowden has said unequivocally that when he left Hong Kong, he took no files with him, having given them to the journalists with whom he worked, and then destroying his copy precisely so that it wouldn't be vulnerable," Mr. Greenwald writes. "How, then, could Russia have obtained Snowden's files as the story claims ... if he did not even have physical possession of them?"

A simple explanation is that Snowden lied and kept copies for himself. He has a track record of mutually incompatible public statements. He insisted that none of his leaks would compromise legitimate US security concerns, yet in January 2014 he blew US intelligence collection efforts focused on Al Qaeda in Mosul, Iraq.

And he signed agreements when he was working as an NSA contractor in which he promised not to compromise US intelligence. The estimated 1 million files he absconded with shows what that promise was worth.

He also sought to curry favor with China. While in Hong Kong in May 2013, and hoping to have asylum application there approved, he exposed US spying operations in both Hong Kong and the mainland. That certainly appeared to be an effort to curry favor with the local authorities, and certainly didn't have anything to do with the rights of US citizens or possible violations of constitutional protections.

While in Russia since June 2013, he's been circumspect in talking about the country's expansive domestic surveillance operations and its expanding restrictions of free speech and assembly. Fair enough. He's looking to protect himself. But a man living under the protection of Vladimir Putin's FSB, the successor to the old Soviet KGB (his Russian lawyer, among other things, works with the intelligence and security agency), can find himself pressured in all kinds of ways.

It's also possible that Snowden is telling the truth that "he took no files with him" when he left Hong Kong. But what does that really mean? He could have easily handed off the files before he left – he was reported by a Russian newspaper to have stayed at the country's Hong Kong consulate before departing – or had them stolen from him: by the Russians, Chinese or any of a half dozen other serious intelligence services.

Or the documents could have been simply stolen from the journalists and activists he works with. 

We know to a certainty that not all of the files were destroyed. Greenwald and a number of other journalists not only still appear to have many but from time to time write fresh reports based on them. The evidence that the files have passed through the hands of numerous people – many of them untrained in espionage tactics – is undeniable.

For instance Greenwald's boyfriend David Miranda was detained at Heathrow airport in London for nine hours in August 2013 and found to be acting as a courier for 58,000 classified UK documents. A UK court says he was carrying the documents from Laura Poitras, a film-maker who's worked closely with Greenwald and Snowden on the leaks, in Berlin to Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro.

Some volume of documents that Snowden took have also been provided directly to journalists at The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Speigel, and others. How many? No one's been forthcoming about that. But there are clearly a variety of people far beyond Snowden, with a variety of competences, motivations, and weaknesses, for intelligence agencies to try to exploit. He's also worked closely with WikiLeaks activist Sarah Harrison while in Russia.

Yet in 2013, Snowden wrote: "No intel­li­gence ser­vice — not even our own — has the capac­ity to com­pro­mise the secrets I con­tinue to pro­tect ... You may rest easy know­ing I can­not be coerced into reveal­ing that infor­ma­tion, even under torture."

Snowden backing his own ability to withstand torture, and his assessment of his skills put up against a determined government like China, is risible. But he and his advocates now insist that he longer has any documents to protect. And if that's so, he has no control over what may or may not happen to them.

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