The Sunday Times produced what at first sight looked like a startling news story: Russia and China had gained access to the cache of top-secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Not only that, but as a result, Britain’s overseas intelligence agency, the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, had been forced “to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries”. These are serious allegations and, as such, the government has an obligation to respond openly.
The story is based on sources including “senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services”. The BBC said it had also also been briefed anonymously by a senior government official. 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.
1. Is it true that Russia and China have gained access to Snowden’s top-secret documents? If so, where is the evidence?
Which cache of documents is the UK government talking about? Snowden has said he handed tens of thousands of leaked documents over to journalists he met in Hong Kong, and that he has not had them in his possession since. Have Russia and China managed to access documents held by one of the journalists or their companies? In addition, if agents had to be moved, why? Which Snowden documents allegedly compromised them to the extent they had to be forcibly removed from post?
2. Why have the White House and the US intelligence agencies not raised this?
Snowden is wanted by the US on charges under the Espionage Act. 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.
If the UK were to have evidence that Russia and China had managed to penetrate his document cache or that agents had been forced to move, London would have shared this with Washington. The White House would have happily briefed this openly, as would any number of Republican – and even Democratic – members of Congress close to the security services. They would not have stinted. It would have been a full-blown press conference.
The debate in the US has become more grownup in recent months, with fewer scare stories and more interest in introducing reforms that will redress the balance between security and privacy, but there are still many in Congress and the intelligence agencies seeking vengeance.
3. Why have these claims emerged now?
Most the allegations have been made before in some form, only to fall apart when scrutinised. These include that Snowden was a Chinese spy and, when he ended up in Moscow, that he was a Russian spy or was at least cooperating with them. The US claimed 56 plots had been disrupted as a result of surveillance, but under pressure acknowledged this was untrue.
The claim about agents being moved was first made in the UK 18 months ago, along with allegations that Snowden had helped terrorists evade surveillance and, as a result, had blood on his hands. Both the US and UK have since acknowledged no one has been harmed. So why now? One explanation is that it is partly in response to Thursday’s publication of David Anderson’s 373-page report on surveillance. David Cameron asked the QC to conduct an independent review and there is much in it for the government and intelligence services to like, primarily about retaining bulk data.
Anderson is scathing, however, about the existing legal framework for surveillance, describing it as intolerable and undemocratic, and he has proposed that the authority to approve surveillance warrants be transferred from the foreign and home secretaries to the judiciary.
His proposal, along with another surveillance report out next month from the Royal United Services Institute, mean that there will be continued debate in the UK. There are also European court rulings pending. Web users’ increasing use of encryption is another live issue. Above all else though, there is the backlash by internet giants such as Google, which appear to be less prepared to cooperate with the intelligence agencies, at least not those in the UK.
The issue 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.
4. Why is the Foreign Office not mentioned as a source?
It seems like a pedantic point, but one that could offer an insight into the manoeuvring inside the higher reaches of government. The Foreign Office is repsonsible for MI6, but the Home Office is quoted in the story. Is it that the Home Office and individuals within the department rather than the Foreign Office are most exercised about the potential transfer of surveillance warrant approval from the home secretary, the proposed scrapping of existing legislation covering surveillance and other potential reforms?
5. What about the debatable assertions and at least one totally inaccurate point in the Sunday Times piece?
The Sunday Times says Snowden “fled to seek protection from Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, after mounting one of the largest leaks in US history”. In fact he fled Hong Kong bound for Latin America, via Moscow and Cuba. The US revoked his passport, providing Russia with an excuse to hold him in transit. The Sunday Times says 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”. The latter is not possible if, as Snowden says, he gave all the documents to journalists in Hong Kong in June 2013.
The Sunday Times also reports that “David Miranda, the boyfriend of 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 inaccurate. Miranda had in fact been in Berlin seeing the film-maker Laura Poitras, not in Moscow visiting Snowden. It is not a small point.
The claim about Miranda having been in Moscow first appeared in the Daily Mail in September under the headline “An intelligence expert’s devastating verdict: Leaks by Edward Snowden have put British hostages in even greater peril”. It was written by Professor Anthony Glees, the director of the centre for security and intelligence studies at the University of Buckingham, and has never been corrected.