There’s no evidence anyone’s been harmed but we’d like the phrase ‘blood on his hands’ somewhere in the piece.
Jonathan King via Twitter
On Sunday 14th June 2015, the Sunday Times published an article claiming that
RUSSIA and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files stolen by the fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries.
The original article is hidden behind a paywall (that’s journalism worth paying for!) but the full text can be read here.
Anyone with some background knowledge on Edward Snowden, the documents he leaked, the reporting they have enabled and the claims that have been made (and regurgitated ad nauseam) to discredit both Snowden and the reporting will notice several, shall we say, weaknesses in the Times piece – like, for example, the repetition of the unproven 1.7 million documents claim that has been floating around since what feels like the beginning of time.
However, even those with little to no knowledge of the Snowden stories will notice the seriously worrying “journalistic ethics” at play here. Most obviously, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out: “The whole article does literally nothing other than quote anonymous British officials” (emphasis in original). What is more, close reading of the article reveals inconsistencies, dubious and contradictory claims throughout the whole piece.
David Cameron’s aides confirmed the material was now in the hands of spy chiefs in Moscow and Beijing.
This beckons the question of how the Times knows that, or rather, of how Cameron’s aides (who aren’t identified) know that. In short: who are the people saying so, where can we get their confirmation and most importantly: where is the evidence?
The article continues:
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. There is no evidence of anyone being harmed.”
Note that what the (again: unidentified) source doesn’t say is: “It is the case that Russians and Chinese have that particular information” (i.e. from Snowden’s cache). That they have information (whatever information that may be) is obvious: everyone does. Some of Snowden’s information is in the public domain and has been for a while, following the reporting done on it. This isn’t news, it’s just a statement of fact. Still, the question is: just what information does the Times allege that the Russians and the Chinese have and where is the evidence that they have more or different information than the rest of us (which, I am sure, they do but that doesn’t necessarily mean they got it from Snowden. They have their own spies.)
[T]he 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?
Then there is the contradiction that there is “no evidence of anyone being harmed” when the Times quotes another (guess what? Anonymous!) source saying that “Snowden has blood on his hands,” and also claiming that “[t]he confirmation is the first evidence that Snowden’s disclosures have exacted a human toll.”
Question: how is there a human toll if no one has been harmed? Note: the confirmation is dubious because the source isn’t named and also no evidence is being provided.
Sadly, the Times article raises more questions than it answers and regurgitates false or dubious claims that have been around for a long time, mostly made by unnamed sources. As Glenn Greenwald writes:
This is the very opposite of journalism.
The most interesting thing about the Times article is the timing. Shami Chakrabarti points out that it immediately follows a call made by “David Anderson, the government’s reviewer of terrorism legislation,” for “a comprehensive new law incorporating judicial warrants” after Anderson “condemned snooping laws as “undemocratic, unnecessary and – in the long run – intolerable”.
Isn’t it funny that the exact week that the snooping powers that be come under threat from a damning review, “new evidence” appears that condemns the man who made a review of these powers possible in the first place? I think not.
Unsurprisingly, the article has drawn a lot of criticism. Below a collection of pieces debunking the article. For each, I quote some key points, as they express exactly the kinds of thoughts I had when reading the Times piece. Feel free to follow the links and read the op-eds themselves.
Ryan Gallagher: Questions about the Sunday Times Snowden Story
The story is sourced from anonymous UK government officials who make a series of significant allegations, unfortunately backed up with zero evidence.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 whole article does literally nothing other than quote anonymous British officials. It gives voice to banal but inflammatory accusations that are made about every whistleblower from Daniel Ellsberg to Chelsea Manning. It offers zero evidence or confirmation for any of its claims. The “journalists” who wrote it neither questioned any of the official assertions nor even quoted anyone who denies them.
The same thing happened with Chelsea Manning. When WikiLeaks first began publishing the Afghan War logs, U.S. officials screamed that they – all together now – had “blood on their hands.” But when some journalists decided to scrutinize rather than mindlessly repeat the official accusation (i.e., some decided to do journalism), they found it was a fabrication.
Finally, none of what’s in the Sunday Times is remotely new. US and UK government officials and their favorite journalists have tried for two years to smear Snowden with these same claims.
Importantly, the original Times text included the claim that David Miranda, Greenwald’s husband, was detained at Heathrow airport after visiting Snowden in Moscow. This is false. Miranda had been visiting film-maker Laura Poitras in Berlin. While it is possible that the Times simply got it wrong, they later “just removed [the claim] from their story without any indication or note to their readers that they’ve done so.” It remains in the print edition of course.
These are serious allegations and, as such, the government has an obligation to respond openly… 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.
Is it true that Russia and China have gained access to Snowden’s top-secret documents? If so, where is the evidence?
[I]f agents had to be moved, why? Which Snowden documents allegedly compromised them to the extent they had to be forcibly removed from post?
The White House, the US intelligence agencies and especially some members of Congress have been desperate to blacken Snowden’s reputation. They have gone through his personal life and failed to come up with a single damaging detail.
Most the allegations have been made before in some form, only to fall apart when scrutinised.
The issue [of surveillance and reform] is not going away and the Sunday Times story may reflect a cack-handed attempt by some within the British security apparatus to try to take control of the narrative.
Shami Chakrabarti: Let me be clear – Edward Snowden is a hero
Low on facts, high on assertions, this flimsy but impeccably timed story gives us a clear idea of where government spin will go in the coming weeks. It uses scare tactics to steer the debate away from Anderson’s considered recommendations – and starts setting the stage for the home secretary’s new investigatory powers bill. In his report, Anderson clearly states no operational case had yet been made for the snooper’s charter. So it is easy to see why the government isn’t keen on people paying too close attention to it.
[W]hen it comes to responding to criticism, the approach of the Conservative leadership has been the same for some time: shut down all debate by branding Snowden – or anyone else who dares question the security agencies – as an enemy of the state and an apologist for terror.
Robert Graham: How we really know the Sunday Times story is bogus
Stories sourced entirely from “anonymous senior government officials” are propaganda, not journalism. The identities of the sources are hidden not to protect them from speaking out against the government, since they are in fact delivering exactly the message the government wants to get out. Instead, their identities are kept secret so that their message cannot be challenged.
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 strongly be pushing back is The Guardian (who 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.”
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, but all angry speculation.
Craig Murray: Five Reasons the MI6 Story is a Lie
The argument that MI6 officers are at danger of being killed by the Russians or Chinese is a nonsense. No MI6 officer has been killed by the Russians or Chinese for 50 years. The worst that could happen is they would be sent home. Agents’ – generally local people, as opposed to MI6 officers – identities would not be revealed in the Snowden documents. 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 anti Snowden non-story – even the Sunday Times admits there is no evidence anybody has been harmed – is timed precisely to coincide with the government’s new Snooper’s Charter act, enabling the security services to access all our internet activity.
The obvious verdict is damning
The Sunday Times story is yet another example of various attempts that have been made since 2013 to smear Snowden and undermine his credibility. It does no such thing. Rather, it undermines the credibility of the Sunday Times and, potentially, of media and journalists everywhere. Equally worrying, however, is that there will be people – and probably not a few of them either – who will just take it at face value.