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'."