Let’s start with this. Soon after Daniel Ellsberg was revealed as the source behind the Pentagon Papers, White House officials started spreading rumors that Ellsberg was actually a Soviet spy and that he’d passed on important secrets to the Russians: None of it was true, but it was part of a concerted effort by administration officials to smear Ellsberg as a “Soviet spy” and a “traitor” when all he really did was blow the whistle on things by sharing documents with reporters.
Does that sound familiar? Over the weekend, a big story supposedly broke in the UK’s the Sunday Times, citing anonymous UK officials arguing that the Russians and Chinese got access to all the Snowden documents and it had created all sorts of issues, including forcing the UK to remove undercover “agents” from Russia. That story is behind a paywall, but plenty of people have made the text available if you’d like to read the whole thing.
There are all sorts of problems with the report that make it not just difficult to take seriously, but which actually raise a lot more questions about what kind of “reporting” the Sunday Times actually does. It’s also worth noting that this particular story comes out just about a week or so after Jason Leopold revealed some of the details of the secret plan to discredit Snowden that was hatched in DC. Even so, the journalism here is beyond shoddy, getting key facts flat out incorrect, allowing key sources to remain anonymous for no reason, and not appearing to raise any questions about the significant holes in the story.
Snowden has made it clear for well over a year that once he gave the documents to the original journalists, he got rid of them and no longer had them — so he wouldn’t even be able to give them to anyone else, even if they wanted them. Yet, the article insists that the Russians got them, and originally included a claim that supposedly ties the documents to Snowden in Moscow:
It is not clear whether Russia and China stole Snowden’s data, or whether he voluntarily handed over his secret documents in order to remain at liberty in Hong Kong and Moscow.
David Miranda, the boyfriend of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was seized at Heathrow in 2013 in possession of 58,000 “highly classified” intelligence documents after visiting Snowden in Moscow.
During the ensuing court hearing Oliver Robbins, then deputy national security adviser in the Cabinet Office, said that the release of the information “would do serious damage to UK national security, and ultimately put lives at risk”.
Except, that middle paragraph is simply factually incorrect — as basically any report on the original detention would have made clear. Miranda had been in Berlin with Laura Poitras, and not in Moscow with Snowden. After this rather important factual error was pointed out repeatedly… the Sunday Times simply deleted it with no retraction or correction. Down the memory hole. Well, except if you have the paper copy: Considering that that point is sort of a key string in the narrative of putting the documents in Russia — the fact that it is flat out false (despite the easy fact checking) should call into question the rest of the story. But there are even more problems with it the deeper you dig. Craig Murray, a former ambassador and diplomat for the UK has written the best explanation saying that the story “is a lie.” He highlights five very serious problems with the story, starting with the fact that the terminology is wrong. In the article, the anonymous government official is quoted as follows:
A senior Downing Street source said: “It is the case that Russians and Chinese have information. It has meant agents have had to be moved and that knowledge of how we operate has stopped us getting vital information.”
Except, as Murray notes, no actual government source who was familiar with these things would mistake an “agent” for an “officer.”
Yet the schoolboy mistake is made of confusing officers and agents. MI6 is staffed by officers. Their informants are agents. In real life, James Bond would not be a secret agent. He would be an MI6 officer. Those whose knowledge comes from fiction frequently confuse the two. Nobody really working with the intelligence services would do so, as the Sunday Times source does. The story is a lie.
He also dismisses the “blood on his hands” money quote given in the article. That line was directed at Snowden — though, it was almost immediately undercut within the same exact article by someone noting “there is no evidence of anyone being harmed.” It’s almost as if no one actually bothered to think through the propaganda message. Murray points out that the idea that any officers would be in danger is hogwash. Beyond the fact that the Russian and Chinese don’t kill western spies (they just kick them out of the country), there’s the simple fact that such info would never be in the documents Snowden had:
Rule No.1 in both the CIA and MI6 is that agents’ identities are never, ever written down, neither their names nor a description that would allow them to be identified.
This same point is further confirmed by Ryan Gallagher, one of the journalists who does have access to the Snowden files and says that there is no such information in them.
This was a surprise to me because I’ve reviewed the Snowden documents and I’ve never seen anything in there naming active MI6 agents. Were the agents pulled out as a precautionary measure? Keeping in mind that the UK government does not actually know exactly what Snowden leaked, how do these officials know there were documents in there that implicated MI6 operatives and live operations in the first place?
Murray further notes that the Russians are already pretty sure they know who the UK’s spies are (and vice versa) and even if they were revealed in the documents, which he doesn’t think is true, there’d be no reason to remove anyone anyway.
The Sunday Times piece further repeats the long repudiated claim that Snowden’s cache included 1.7 million documents — a number that even the NSA now admits was bunk and based solely on the number of documents he “touched,” not those Snowden actually took.
Then there’s this point, raised by security professor Matthew Green: If the intelligence agencies really believed that Snowden was carrying such damaging documents on his person, why would they strand him in Moscow by pulling his passport? Another potential problem: at one point, the article implies that Snowden may have handed the documents over as part of a “deal” with the Russian or Chinese, but in another part of the article, it discusses how the Russians and Chinese cracked the encryption on the stash. So which is it? Did he hand them over, or were they encrypted?
The whole thing is such a shoddy piece of propaganda that it seems almost hilarious… and would be if actual serious news sites weren’t repeating the claims, often with little question. The BBC was quick to put up a piece repeating the claims — though it has since added a few dissenting viewpoints. Many other UK tabloids have more or less repeated the claims. The only paper that seems to be strongly pushing back is The Guardian (which published the first Snowden revelation and many later ones as well). It has been raising lots of questions about the original reporting, demanding answers from the UK government about the claims and actually willing to call out the report as “low on facts, high on assertions.”
Is it possible that others have access to these documents? Sure. Of course, the world itself has seen many of them, thanks to reporters revealing them publicly (something Snowden himself never did).
Still, even back when Snowden was in Hong Kong, intelligence community defenders insisted it meant that China had the documents. And the second he was in Moscow, they insisted that Russia had them too. In this case, it honestly sounds like the naive reporters at the Sunday Times took that “speculation” and wrote an entire story about it, searching for quotes that would confirm the thesis, but not doing any actual journalistic activity. So they got their story, and it’s now quite easy to poke it full of very large holes.
Of course the timing on this is even more suspect. It comes out just as a report was published in the UK that slammed some aspects of government surveillance, and it seems noteworthy that right before this, there was a sudden upsurge in ridiculous and slightly unhinged fear mongering about Snowden himself — none of which comes with any actual evidence, only angry speculation. It’s almost as if governments pushing for greater surveillance powers might mount a coordinated propaganda campaign to smear the one guy who has been exposing their bullshit.