Questions About The Sunday Times Snowden Story

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Sunday Times has a front page story out today claiming that the Chinese and Russian governments have somehow managed to obtain National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden's trove of documents. The story is sourced from anonymous UK government officials who make a series of significant allegations, unfortunately backed up with zero evidence. It's worth going through some of the key points of the story to cast some critical scrutiny on the central claims and to raise a few questions about them:
1) "RUSSIA and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files stolen by the fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden...according to senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services."
Is the claim here that a full archive of encrypted files was "cracked" by some sort of brute-force decryption attack? If so, how did these "senior officials" establish that? How did the Russians and Chinese allegedly obtain the encrypted material in the first place?
2) "forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries."
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?
3) "Moscow gained access to more than 1m classified files held by the former American security contractor"
Snowden has said repeatedly that he did not carry any files with him when he left Hong Kong for Moscow. Is this article alleging that he is lying? If so, where's the evidence to support that? Moreover, I've seen nothing in the region of 1m documents in the Snowden archive, so I don't know where that number has come from. Oh, wait:
4) "Snowden, a former contractor at the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA), downloaded 1.7m secret documents"
This 1.7m figure was invented by US officials and since then it has been regurgitated repeatedly and unquestioningly by various media outlets. I've seen the trove of documents; the claim or insinuation that he leaked 1.7m is not true.
5) "A senior Downing Street source said: 'It is the case that Russians and Chinese have information'."
Of course they do: the same information that the rest of the world has access to in public news reports and documents published as part of those. If the claim here is that the Russians and Chinese have access to every single document in the entire archive (i.e. all the unpublished material), where is the evidence to support that? How do the officials know? Are they speculating? These are serious claims — and serious claims demand serious evidence. Which is unfortunately not provided here.
6) “Why do you think Snowden ended up in Russia?” said a senior Home Office source. “Putin didn’t give him asylum for nothing."
I thought this one had long since been debunked by now, but apparently not. The reality is that Snowden never intended to stay in Russia. He was trying to get to Latin America and only ended up in Russia because his passport was revoked by the US government while he was transiting through.
7) Senior Home Office source: "His documents were encrypted but they weren’t completely secure and we have now seen our agents and assets being targeted.”
So the UK Home Office is alleging Snowden lied about taking documents to Moscow? How has it established that? And the "targeted" assets — how does the source know this has happened as a direct consequence of the Snowden leaks? There are many other factors at play here, and correlation does not imply causation. Especially with regard to Russia, given that anonymous UK "security sources" claimed months ago — again in the Sunday Times — that they are engaged in a "new Cold War" against Kremlin spies due to the broader issue of Vladimir Putin's heightened military posturing.
8) "A British intelligence source said: 'We know Russia and China have access to Snowden’s material'."
As I noted above: the Russians and Chinese have access to documents published with public news reports, sure, that's obvious and true. But is the claim here that they have access to material beyond that? If so, where's the evidence? How does this source "know" and what does he "know," exactly? Why the vague statement? Let's hear what it is the source knows and how so we can properly assess and scrutinise the merit of the allegation.
9) "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."
If it's not clear then why does the top line of the story say the Chinese and Russians "cracked" the documents? If Snowden just handed them over, why would they need to "crack" them? And if the Russians and Chinese somehow stole the documents in encrypted form, how did they a) manage to obtain them in the first place (especially given Snowden says he didn't carry the files with him into Russia), and then b) break the encryption?
10) "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."
This is wrong. Miranda was detained at Heathrow after visiting Laura Poitras in Berlin. He wasn't visiting Snowden in Moscow and I think this is the first time I've ever seen this asserted. It's false.

*****

All in all, for me the Sunday Times story raises more questions than it answers, and more importantly it contains some pretty dubious claims, contradictions, and inaccuracies. The most astonishing thing about it is the total lack of scepticism it shows for these grand government assertions, made behind a veil of anonymity. This sort of credulous regurgitation of government statements is antithetical to good journalism.

The government has an obvious vested interest in portraying Snowden as a terrible person who's helped "the enemy" — it has been badly stung by his surveillance revelations and the political fallout that has ensued as a result of them. For that reason alone its claims should be treated with caution and not repeated unchallenged. Evidence should be necessary for allegations of this magnitude, which have such big ramifications. The Sunday Times has a long and commendable history of holding the government to account with great investigative journalism. But in this case, sadly, it has allowed itself to be used by faceless officials as a mouthpiece.

UPDATE, 14 June 2015, 19:30 BST: My colleague Glenn Greenwald has a post up at The Intercept dissecting the Sunday Times report, which he blasts as "pure stenography of the worst kind." Greenwald writes that "the exact kinds of accusations laundered in the Sunday Times today are made — and then disproven — in every case where someone leaks unflattering information about government officials." He says the story is "as shoddy and unreliable as it gets. Worse, its key accusations depend on retraction-level lies."

The Guardian has a good piece from Ewen MacAskill with five pertinent questions for the British government about the claims. "Anonymous sources are an unavoidable part of reporting, but neither Downing Street nor the Home Office should be allowed to hide behind anonymity in this case," writes MacAskill, who travelled with Greenwald and Laura Poitras to meet Snowden in Hong Kong back in 2013. "Where is the evidence?" he asks.

In another interesting development, the Sunday Times quietly deleted the false assertion I noted above (see #10) about David Miranda having documents on his possession "after visiting Snowden in Moscow." This has been removed from the online version of the story with no correction or note, but it can still be found in the paper version, which I got a copy of. The inaccuracy was significant as it underpinned the central dubious narrative of the story — that the documents were "held" by Snowden in Moscow, the insinuation being that this was how the Kremlin was supposed to have gotten hold of them, a claim presented in the story as unquestionable fact because nameless officials "confirmed" it (without offering any evidence).

UPDATE II, 15 June 2015, 19:00 BST: The lead reporter on the Sunday Times article, Tom Harper, has given an interview with CNN that has to be seen to be believed. In it, Harper is quizzed by host George Howell about the piece — and his answers highlight the many problems with the story's central allegations and how they were sourced. Here's a transcript of the important bits; I'll dissect some key points below.

Howell: How do senior officials at 10 Downing Street know that these files were breached?

Harper: Well, uhh, I don't know the answer to that George. All we know is that this is effectively the official position of the British government ... we picked up on it a while ago and we've been working on it and trying to stand it up through multiple sources, and when we approached the government late last week with our evidence, they confirmed effectively what you read today in the Sunday Times, so it's obviously allegations at the moment from our point of view and it's really for the British government to defend it.

How do they know what was in them [the files], if they were encrypted? Has the British government also gotten into these files?

Well, the files came from America and the UK, so they may already have known for some time what Snowden took — uhh, again, that's not something we're clear on ... we don't go into that level of detail in the story we just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment.

Your article asserts that it is not clear if the files were hacked or if he just gave these files over when he was in Hong Kong or Russia, so which is it?


Well again sorry to just repeat myself George, but we don't know so we haven't written that in the paper. It could be either, it could be another scenario ... when you're dealing with the world of intelligence there are so many unknowns and possibilities it's difficult to state anything with certainty and so we've been very careful to just stick to what we are able to substantiate.

The article mentions these MI6 agents ... were they directly under threat as a result of the information leaked or was this a precautionary measure?

Uhh, again, I'm afraid to disappoint you, we don't know ... there was a suggestion some of them may have been under threat but the statement from senior Downing Street sources suggests that no one has come to any harm, which is obviously a positive thing from the point of view of the West.

So essentially you are reporting what the government is saying, but as far as the evidence to substantiate it, you're not really able to comment or explain that at this point?

No. We picked up on the story a while back from an extremely well placed source in the Home Office. and picked up on trying to substantiate through various sources in various agencies throughout Britain, and finally presented the story to the government, and they effectively confirmed what you read in today's Sunday Times. But obviously when you're dealing with intelligence it's the toughest nut to crack and unless you have leaked documents like Snowden had, it's difficult to say anything with certainty.

So, in summary: How were the files breached? "I don't know." Were the files hacked or did Snowden hand them over? "We don't know." Were MI6 agents directly under threat? "We don't know." How did the government know what was in the files? "That's not something we're clear on." Can you substantiate the claims? "No."

The interview is quite extraordinary because it makes absolutely clear that not only was this entire dubious story based solely on claims made anonymously by government officials, the reporters who regurgitated the claims did not even seek to question the veracity of the information. They just credulously accepted the allegations and then printed them unquestioningly. That really is the definition of stenography journalism — it's shameful.

It's also worth noting that in Harper's interview he admits he has no idea how the Chinese and Russian governments supposedly obtained the files, yet the whole story was based on a bombshell claim that the trove of files was somehow "cracked" by Chinese and Russian government operatives (i.e. that the encryption on them was broken). As I noted above in point #9, if Snowden just handed over the files, why would these governments then need to "crack" them, unless the claim is that he handed over a set of encrypted documents? Either way, Harper says he has no idea how the files were obtained, so how does he know they were "cracked"? This central allegation seems to have been invented completely out of thin air, at worst a fabrication by technologically inept reporters who don't understand what terminology like "cracked" means, at best derived from evidence-free conjecture from spineless government officials too afraid to put their names to the claims.

It is also very telling to note that Harper cites "an extremely well placed source in the Home Office" as the initial person who tipped him off about the story. That's presumably the same "senior Home Office source" quoted in the story insinuating that Snowden chose to go to Russia and hand over documents in return for asylum. That absurd allegation, as I noted in point #6 above, contradicts the fact that Snowden only ended up in Moscow because the US government foolishly revoked his passport and stranded him there while he was passing through on route to Latin America; moreover, Snowden has said repeatedly that he didn't take any documents to Russia. Any reporter familiar with the story knows this. An assertion from an official claiming Snowden went there to hand over documents should surely have set off alarm bells about the credibility of his claims, and should have at least prompted a demand for evidence to back them up, given their magnitude.

But no alarm bells were triggered in our boy Harper's head. Sounding more like a government press officer than a journalist, he told CNN: "we just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment."

And that brings me to my final point on this. Harper claimed in his CNN interview that his story was "effectively the official position of the British government." If that's the case, then why will no one in the government come out and say so publicly? As the well-sourced BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera noted in a measured analysis on Sunday: "No one in government today is confirming that they are sure that the Russians and Chinese have got full access — that remains in the realm of 'no comment'."

28 comments:

  1. Sunday Times is written by MI5

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  2. Clear as hell how the UK gov't is guilty of aggravated pimping in having brokered dildo-style intercourse between all the johns @ GCHQ and the news-whores Shipman, Harper & Kerbaj @ Murdoch's Sunday Times.

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  3. thankyou for writing this, you pretty much summed up what i and i imagine many others were thinking while trawling through that sunday times 'article' which seems to be a text book lesson in propaganda. the journalists who spew this tripe should be held to account.

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  4. If you see the top post at caseysoftware.com, titled "Why this security breach is worse than all the others combined", you'll see that a US government office leaked the information on their own, not because of Snowden. And it happened six months ago so they had time to prepare before it became public.

    They can use Snowden as a very handy scapegoat.

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  5. Someone should bite into it. They should not get away with this obvious crap.

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  6. 'Keeping in mind that the UK government does not actually know exactly what Snowden leaked' - Can someone provide some evidence/background to this claim? I can find little certain information on whether the US and UK governments know which files were took by sNOWDEN.

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    1. Former NSA director Keith Alexander admitted in an interview last year: "I don’t think anybody really knows what he actually took with him." [1]

      In 2013 the UK government seized a portion of the documents from David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald's partner. But it said in court documents it had only been able to read 75 of 58,000 documents it claimed to have seized [2].

      [1] http://www.afr.com/p/technology/interview_transcript_former_head_51yP0Cu1AQGUCs7WAC9ZVN

      [2] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/other/how-much-did-snowden-take-least-three-times-number-reported-v20200659

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  7. Just splendid to reflect on how the Russians and Chinese have succeeded in 'cracking' open all the Snowden docs while, despite the 'Five Eyes' alliance & Israel, the GCHQ has yet to crack open the encrypted files pirated from David Miranda as he transited HRW -- so, at any rate, we have to assume by the howling lack of any triumphant shrieks of 'Eureka' since summer 2013. Clearly, when it comes to computer tech, Russia and China must be way more advanced than we are in the west -- if, that is, we buy into the UK government's practiced mendacity and take what it has to say at face: #GrossDomesticProduct designed for #DumbestCommonDenominators.

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  8. Anyone who claims to have cracked RSA, SSL or other high-end encryption is spreading propaganda that is analogous to Saddam Hussein’s propaganda that he had weapons of mass destruction to keep Iran and his other rivals at bay.

    No one has broken these high-end encryption, and just because the United States or any other country claims it has, does not make it so.

    There are a number of credible articles that explain the mathematics involved in breaking today’s encryption, the amount of computing power, and the amount of physical memory and disc space necessary to store calculations that need to be used for recalculation.

    The amount of computing power, memory and storage space to break a 2048 bit cipher would require more mass than exists in the Universe, and it would require more time than the presently estimated age of the Universe.

    The propaganda that the Chinese and Russian intelligence services have broken Mr. Snowden’s encryption is likely put out by the NSA or other U.S. Government agencies because the truth regarding Mr. Snowden and his genuine reasons for exposing the spying on U.S. citizens, and everyone else on the planet is causing a movement to grant him his well deserved status as a patriot - not a traitor.

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    1. Which is exactly why the US want to bring in laws that forbid encryption, or at least grants them access. Which they wouldn't need if they'd cracked it!

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  10. Obvious lie is obvious.

    Frankly, you could have saved yourself a whole lot of typing, because that's all you needed to say. The ST article is not going to convince anyone capable of the most basic level of critical thinking, but that doesn't matter, because most people open to taking an anti-Snowden stance aren't capable of that.

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  11. Isn't it also amazing that the Russians and Chinese have BOTH broken the encryption at the same time, and the rest of the world hasn't yet?

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  12. "My colleague Glenn Greenwald has a post up at The Intercept"

    LOL, talk about accepting claims unsupported by any evidence as true:

    "The government accusers behind this story have a big obstacle to overcome: namely, 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 as he traveled. How, then, could Russia have obtained Snowden’s files as the story claims – “his documents were encrypted but they weren't completely secure ” – if he did not even have physical possession of them?"


    Sure, let's just believe the traitor. He "said" it "unequivocally", after all. A *huge* obstacle, lol.

    And there is of course the possibility that these totalitarian states got the information indirectly, from one of Snowden's facilitators.


    "Moreover, as pointed out last night by my colleague Ryan Gallagher – who has worked for well over a year with the full Snowden archive – “I’ve reviewed the Snowden documents and I’ve never seen anything in there naming active MI6 agents.” He also said: “I’ve seen nothing in the region of 1m documents in the Snowden archive, so I don’t know where that number has come from.”"

    Oh for sure, because why should we doubt the evidence-free claims of this "colleague" of the facilitator. It is clear that the simple assertion - that he *says* that he saw the "full" archive - makes evidence for the claim superfluous. So we can be absolutely certain both about the content and about the number of the documents - remember, not just NSA related, but also Department of Defense documents.

    This is all just a pathetic, unconvincing attempt to muddy the waters. "Operation Snowden" - a serious, well-planned anti-western intelligence operation - caused huge damage to the western liberty, by weakening our lines of defense against the enemies of liberty. History won't be kind to any of the people involved.

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    1. It's not an attempt to "muddy the waters," Louise, quite the contrary. The fact of it is we are just journalists trying to hold the government to account. We do that by subjecting anonymous officials' claims to critical scrutiny in an effort to establish the truth. If that meets your definition of "well-planned anti-western intelligence operation," I find that quite strange. To me it's just called "being a reporter."

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    2. I think one can safely presume that this Louise Cyphre [sic] is one and the same person as the Louise Cypher [sic] who, in recent weeks, has posted quite a number of intellectually vulgar and vacuous comments @ The Intercept in response to articles of Greenwald. Speculation is rife among other commenters at that news organ that, in truth, Louise Cypher is a nom de plume for none other than the utterly unctuous chick-lit novelist and former Tory MP, Louise Bagshawe Mensch, particularly in virtue of their shared penchant for gratuitous repetition ("utter, utter") but also, in the bigger picture, in virtue of their extreme animus against Snowden and Greenwald, Would Louise Mensch, a UK public figure by now resident in NYC, please lay minds to rest by confirming or denying whether she is actually one & the same person as Louise Cypher, here aka Cyphre. By now, transparency calls for no less.

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  13. wondering what western liberty you are on about louise. i see no liberty. i see a world controlled by corporate globalisation and financial markets. poltics might as well just be theatre and voting is meaningless. the intelligence services are black governments, operating within a lawless system of blackmail and deceit, as we saw with iraq. god knows what they have on UK politicians who support them. i suspect really really really really dark things.

    snowden is an honourable, moral upstanding man, and he also has a clue, i really think Louise you should reconsider your opinion, (and your job at the NSA) you should be making this man president.

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  14. "subjecting anonymous officials' claims to critical scrutiny in an effort to establish the truth."

    Exactly how everyone should approach your and Greenwald's evidence-free claims regarding the content of the Snowden cache. Again: a) why should we trust you regarding both the number and the content of the archive you reviewed, and b) how can we be sure that you - or Greenwald for that matter - received *everything* that Snowden stole? We can't.

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    1. My god how feeble. -- Information can't be stolen as it is incorporeal and goes not to property but, at best, only to privilege (< aka 'secrets'). Dissemination of data (aka 'knowledge') entails no diminution whatsoever.

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    2. Huh? Uh... OK?

      Sort of amazing that you think this esoteric rant is in anyway relevant, but how exactly does it even begin to address Cyphre's point?

      Hint: it doesn't

      Fact is there is no way of knowing if Snowden held back some information to use as a bargaining chip with Herr Putin.

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  15. yes youre right louise, never mind they are obviously intelligent, moral characters (not bitter trolls), the only way for them to prove they are telling the truth is for them to release the entire trove of files. i fully support your position.

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  16. lol, if it is louise mensch no need to worry, shes just some vacuous corporate ho. thank god she went to america.

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  17. During the Murdoch phone hacking and tapping scandals (and the Times is a Murdoch mouthpiece) Louise Bagshawe, as parachuted Conservative MP, ran scrimmage for Murdoch's corporate interests, including defense mounted for his son James. Greenwald recently criticized the appointment of Murdoch's son as his heir over his world media empire, which includes among many others Sky News and the Wall Street Journal. The contentious Sky News interview with Greenwald showed how far reporters afraid of their employer Murdoch will go to keep their jobs, by simply repeating lies.

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    1. It's perhaps significant that Louise Bagshawe now Mensch c/o Metallica NYC has not remained entirely silent while all this shit hits the fan. Late Sunday @ Twitter she retweeted a Wilson Valdez link to an article by Anshel Pfeffer on Snowden & Greenwald that had just then appeared (@ 4:05 am, June 15) in Israel's Ha'aretz, and which serves to lend yet more quantitative easing to the Russia / China fairy tale. Valdez's comment: "Great piece in @haaretz on #Snowden with actual context." (Vide: haaretz.com/news/world/.premium-1.661207 )

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  18. "All in all, for me the Sunday Times story raises more questions than it answers..."

    Not at all. There are no questions here. The intelligence services and the government in general are populated by professional liars. The intelligence services are the top tier of the professional liars and the politicians -- second tier,... junior varsity professional liars -- get over it. You have a mute button on your television control. Whenever you see somebody coming on with their political statements hit the mute button, particularly if it’s a spokesman for the Pentagon or the White House. These guys do nothing but lie to you. And the reason they do nothing but lie to you is because they are making buckets of money and they are living the high life and they want bigger budgets and that's the way they work it. They tell you what they need to have you think is the truth, then you go on your merry way and you go into the voting booth and you give them another 4 years or 2 years or 6 years or whatever it is to lie to you and steal from you. There are no questions here. These people are criminals, they've always been criminals, they will always be criminals. They use you like cattle and then they tell you what they want you to believe. If you believe them it's a case of fool me once shame on you, fool me ever again shame on me. Don't be shamed. Don't let them get away with this. Hit the mute button.

    There’s an old story and it goes like this: a guy says to his friend I can tell when they're lying. And his friend responds,”How”. And he says “Watch them closely, and whenever you see their lips move…”

    Someday we'll figure out how to fix this s*** and put all these m*****fuckers in jail.

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  20. Craig Murray demolishes the Sunday Times BS here:

    https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2015/06/five-reasons-the-mi6-story-is-a-lie/

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  21. Thompson would have loved the weirdness of these times....Assange must be laughing in the embassy.....the narrative reveals an author with limited understanding of encryption, ignorance of russian/chinese antipathy....

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