The witch-hunt for Snowden continues: Fact-checking Con Coughlin’s article in the Telegraph

The Telegraph, 16th May 2014


On 16th May, the Telegraph published an article by Con Coughlin, titled “Our enemies are stronger because of Edward Snowden’s treacherous betrayal”.

Now, the excessively and unnecessarily loaded headline is itself worthy of note; the qualification of the noun betrayal with the adjective treacherous is a true linguistic gem! (Both terms mean essentially the same: Snowden’s act of treachery is qualified by the adjective as treacherous, his betrayal is marked by betrayal. Wow, well done!)

Things get even better throughout the rest of the article, as Coughlin basically once again accuses “Snowden and his acolytes” (his exact words) of aiding the enemy (not his exact words but that’s the gist).

There is no end, apparently, to the pleasure some of the media seem to get from their continuous Snowden witch-hunt. And witch-hunts, much like the moral panic that sparks them, are hardly conducive to factual treatment of information. Of that, Coughlin’s article – with its repetition (as facts) of certain much-disputed claims – is yet another case in point.

It thus warrants a close and very critical look.


The 1.7 million documents claim

“Many of the 1.7 million documents that Snowden copied and stole,” Coughlin writes, “relate to top-secret American spying operations on countries like Russia and China.”

Now, as recently as 9th May Glenn Greenwald disputed the 1.7 million claim, writing that:

In fact, that number is and always has been a pure fabrication, as even [former NSA chief] Keith Alexander admits…The reality, in the words of the General, is that the US Government “really [doesn’t] know[] what he actually took with him” and they “don’t have an accurate way of counting (author’s emphasis).

As Trevor Timm points out, “this actually isn’t anything new, we’ve known this for months.”

For example, the NY Times in February, after first reporting the claim itself, quoted the “head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn… admit[ing to] a great deal of uncertainty about what Mr. Snowden possessed.”

Snowden himself has told Vanity Fair that 1.7 million is “simply a scare number based on an intentionally crude metric: everything that I ever digitally interacted with in my career.”

Granted, nothing Snowden himself says is likely convince the witch-hunters, but others, like Mike Masnick on Techdirt, have explained repeatedly that the number “seems based on a faulty assumption that every document Snowden has ever “touched” he took with him.”

In this context, it is also worth looking at the words Snowden’s accusers, including Coughlin, use to describe is actions: Snowden “either “took,” “has,” or “stole”” the documents (to aid a foreign power). “[I]n sworn testimony”, this then changes to “‘could have,’ ‘may have,’ ‘potentially.’”

What does that tell us about how much they know – how much they have, on evidence, as proven fact? As far as the 1.7 million number is concerned, very little.

So to sum up – again quoting Trevor Timm – Edward Snowden has said the number is made up, the journalists involved deny they have 1.7 million documents, and the government has stated multiple times they do not know how many documents he took. Literally no party in the NSA story believes the 1.7 million number is true, yet most media organizations claim it’s a fact.


The “engaged in espionage on behalf of a foreign power” claim

This claim comes in two guises.

Firstly, the direct accusation as advanced for example by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul that Edward Snowden “was ‘cultivated by a foreign power’. This insinuation circulated widely at the beginning of this year. I commented on this in January.

In Coughlins words this claim reads:

The alarming scope of the leaking operation, and the fact that he specifically targeted a large number of top secret US databases, has led some American commentators to conclude that he was engaged in espionage on behalf of a foreign power, with Russia and China identified as the most likely culprits.

The second, less direct, accusation is that

even if Snowden was acting on his own initiative, it is safe to assume that, having claimed asylum in Russia, both the Kremlin and Beijing are now well-acquainted with the intricacies of Western intelligence-gathering, enabling them to amend their own operational activities accordingly.

Either way received myth has it that Russia and China both have access to Snowden’s documents.

This claim, too, is quite old and while it has been repeated ad nauseam and until very recently, there is as little evidence that it is, in Coughlin’s words, “safe to assume” as there is for the 1.7 million claim.

It is simply something that “a half-dozen news outlets -– the Associated Press, Reuters, ABC News, the Washington Post, CNN and the Los Angeles Times” published last June, based on “anonymous claims suggesting that Chinese and Russian authorities had likely obtained the documents”.

In actual fact though, claims like this are little more than attempts to create “a narrative that [Snowden] committed espionage, rather than simply leaking documents to journalists and a filmmaker in hopes of shedding light on U.S. surveillance practices.”

Edward Snowden himself has denied this many times, for example when he told NY Times reporter James Risen that he did not even take any files to Russia with him. Glenn Greenwald has also repeatedly disputed this, writing for example in the Guardian that

that’s how this “China-drained-his-laptops” claim was created: by the New York Times citing two anonymous sources saying they “believed” this happened. From there, it predictably spread everywhere as truth… But there was never any evidence that this was true. (emphasis added)

As far as I am aware, there is no more evidence of this now than there was in July 2013, so for Coughlin to claim that this is “safe to assume” makes it sound more certain than it actually is. There has been no conclusive evidence for almost a year that either Russia or China have access to Snowden’s material.

However, in order to ram home his point that “Snowden’s treacherous betrayal” (there it is again, Snowden’s treacherous act of, well, treachery) “might not seem to have been such a good idea after all”, Coughlin goes much further than just to repeat outdated accusations.


The treacherous treachery of aiding the enemy

Coughlin goes on to suggest that it is Edward Snowden’s fault that the poor “British and American security officials… have now been forced to embark on the massive task of recalibrating their intelligence operations,” which “will cost tens of millions of pounds just to change GCHQ’s eavesdropping facilities.”

This is because “hostile groups such as al-Qaeda have lost no time in exploiting the gap in our intelligence-gathering capabilities to strengthen their position, with all the implications that is likely to have for our own future security.”

The latest example of how hostile groups are adapting their behaviour in the post-Snowden world comes with reports that al-Qaeda has created new encryption software so that its activities can avoid detection by surveillance agencies.

All of this, I assume, is based on this analysis from Recorded Future.

Now, first of all, it seems hardly surprising that al-Qaeda et al should be adapting to NSA surveillance – they have been doing that for a while.

In 2011 (two years before Snowden), the Huffington Post reported that al-Qaeda had “ditched cell phones in favor of walkie-talkies and coded names. Information was passed through intermediaries. If someone needed to send an email, it was shielded by highly sophisticated encryption software.”

Moreover, cryptography-experts like Bruce Schneier question the assumption that al-Qaeda’s use of new encryption software will “adversely affect US intelligence efforts:”

“The odds that a home-brew encryption product is better than a well-studied open-source tool,” Schneier writes, “is slight.”


Undermining encryption isn’t a good thing

However, the most outrageous aspects of Coughlin’s article aren’t even his liberal treatment of facts.

Rather, consider this paragraph:

Today’s encryption software automatically encodes data, making it difficult to decipher without outside assistance. To this end most Western spy agencies have formed close working relationships with many of the world’s leading internet providers, helping them to monitor the communications of hostile governments and organisations. In the past, this close-knit relationship has enabled Western surveillance organisations such as the NSA and GCHQ to provide vital intelligence that has helped to disrupt al-Qaeda plots and support efforts by Nato forces to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as providing vital information about the military ambitions of emerging powers such as China and India.

Now, there is so much wrong with the paragraph, it is difficult to determine where to begin.

First of all, Coughlin makes out the fact that “most Western spy agencies have formed close working relationships with many of the world’s leading internet providers,” as if this was a good thing.

It isn’t. Not only is collaboration between internet providers and spy agencies likely a violation of the promises made by tech companies to keep their users’ data safe.

More importantly still, cryptography experts have warned repeatedly that “US and UK security agencies’ attempts to weaken encryption of online communications such as emails and social media… could work against the public interest by weakening critical infrastructure.”

Undermining standards and installing backdoors don’t just allow the government to spy on data but create fundamental insecurities in systems that would allow others to spy on the data as well.

Second of all, it is not just “hostile governments and organisations” that are being surveilled by aid of the “world’s leading internet providers” but other world leaders and pretty much everyone else as well – proven facts that Coughlin conveniently omits.


Exactly how many terrorist plots again?

Then there is the claim that NSA’s and GCHQ’s “vital intelligence…has helped to disrupt al-Qaeda plots” and so on. The evidence for exactly how many – if any at all – terrorist plots have been thwarted or disrupted by aid of mass surveillance is sketchy and in dispute.

Granted, Coughlin does not go so far as to claim that a concrete number of terrorist plots have been averted by GCHQ mass surveillance, like GCHQ and NSA officials have repeatedly, and falsely, done.

However, it is misleading to maintain that the spy agencies’ cosy relationship with tech companies, as well as their indiscriminate mass surveillance, which has raised concerns in the US, the UK, and the EU, is more essential to counter-terrorism than it has been proven to be – and that therefore Edward Snowden’s revelations have done more harm to national security than has been proven.


The cost of refurbishing Cheltenham

As for the cost of changing GCHQ’s Cheltenham facilities: I cannot be the only one who thinks it’s a bit ludicrous to imply that increased cost for ramping up GCHQ’s spying efforts is entirely Edward Snowden’s fault – or in fact his fault at all.

Even before Snowden, GCHQ was worried that “its strategic advantage from its Tempora program… was in danger of eroding as more and more big internet companies encrypted their traffic, responding to customer demands for guaranteed privacy.

It was well before Snowden that GCHQ started facing the “unprecedented challenge to the success of GCHQ’s mission” that arose from “[t]he rapid development of different technologies, types of traffic, service providers and networks, and the growth in sheer volumes that accompany particularly the expansion and use of the internet.”

So it is likely that the legitimate efforts of internet companies to guarantee their users’ privacy caused GCHQ more of a headache than al-Qaeda’s alleged encryption efforts do now.

That Edward Snowden’s revelations should result in any excess spending on cyber-security that the government and the intelligence agencies weren’t planning anyway, seems unlikely. After all, their long-term goal of “Mastering the Internet” could hardly be achieved without continuous development to keep up with rapidly changing technology. In fact, in 2010 – three years before Snowden – “the government… found an extra £650m for cyber-security initiatives, and more than half was given to GCHQ.

To imagine that whatever changes al-Qaeda et al are currently making would strain GCHQ’s budget or capabilities significantly more than anything implemented by all other developers put together seems disproportionate.


Welcome, witch-hunters, to the 21st century

So then, let us be clear: there is no evidence as yet that Russia and China any more likely “to gain the advantage at [the UK’s] expense” or that “groups such as al-Qaeda [will launch] a successful terror attack” because of the Snowden revelations.

Nearly a year after Edward Snowden, “a hitherto unknown contractor with America’s National Security Agency” embarked on arguably the most important intelligence leak in history, it seems that many government officials and establishment media still fail to grasp the true importance and value of his revelations:

The Snowden revelations have proved invaluable in confirming the existence of global, cross-border spying by the NSA (and its four primary allies),” they have “kick-started a debate that we did not have,” they have prompted calls for legislative reform.

It may be too much to ask for certain officials of government and certain representatives of the media to acknowledge that. But perhaps we could at least all agree to advance into the 21st century, rather than continue to engage in medieval witch-hunts.

If some media insist on lambasting Snowden and his supporters, could they at least stop the name-calling and invest more time in getting their facts straight, instead of fabricating misleading articles and repeating unproven allegations?

Hang on! I actually think I can answer that one myself.


One thought on “The witch-hunt for Snowden continues: Fact-checking Con Coughlin’s article in the Telegraph

  1. Pingback: Help us, Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope! Or: No real interest in investigating, let alone ending, NSA mass surveillance | Notes from Self

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