How Many Documents Did Edward Snowden Take?

Since the start of  NSA-Gate (well why not just call it that now), we’ve seen an ever-changing number of how many documents Edward Snowden reportedly pilfered from the spy agency. Many of these changing numbers have come from Glenn Greenwald, who was recently offered protection by Brazil’s totally not-abusively violent police services. Below is a children’s treasury of how the number ebbs and flows.

  • In July, Greenwald told Der Spiegel he and Laura Poitras had each received a complete archive from Snowden in Hong Kong, which totaled 9,000-10,000 documents.
  • Greenwald later told the Brazilian senate that he possessed up to 20,000 documents.
  • In its court statement over the temporary detention of David Miranda, the UK government said Miranda was carrying approximately 58,000 documents directly related to UK national security, which took up around 60 gigabytes of disk space.
  • In late August, the Independent pegged Snowden’s document count at 50,000.
  • In its recent story on NSA’s encryption-breaking activities, they said the Guardian shared with them “more than 50,000” documents.

Why does it matter that the number of documents Greenwald claims to possess varies from 9,000 to more than 58,000? For one, his capacity to tell the truth is an ongoing problem in this scandal, one that should be drawing more attention from fellow journalists who care about reporting the truth.

But this ever-growing number (seemingly proportional to the growing number of outlets with access) also speaks to a crucial element in the mythology Snowden, with help from Greenwald and Poitras, have tried to build around his disclosures. In the early days of his self-identification as the leaker, Snowden went out of his way to say that he carefully vetted each document he was releasing to make sure it was relevant and in the public interest:

“I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest,” he said. “There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.”

The problem with this statement is two-fold:

  1. The documents clearly contain damaging information that could hurt people. When some of Snowden’s documents wound up in Der Spiegel, they declined to publish some of them. Their reasoning? “SPIEGEL has decided not to publish details it has seen about secret operations that could endanger the lives of NSA workers. Nor is it publishing the related internal code words.” Snowden has also explicitly graymailed the government by threatening to release everything onto the internet if he feels sufficiently threatened — damage be damned.
  2. Rhetoric aside, no human on earth can carefully review and vet 58,000 top secret documents in such a short period of time. From April 2012, when he decided to start collecting documents, to May 2013, when he fled the country, Snowden was working a full-time job (let’s assume 8.5 hours a day). Even if he spent literally every waking moment outside of his work reviewing these documents — which is highly unlikely — there is still no physical way he could have possibly reviewed each document to ensure it is in the public interest. To get a sense of why, consider the publication schedule of the newspapers currently running Snowden documents: they are trying to evaluate and understand them, and then (according to their editors) vet each one for public value. That takes time, and with several full time staff doing that they’re still only publishing a couple per day. At this rate it will be years before 58,000 get fully vetted and published.

So when we combine all of this — the constantly upward-revised number of documents Snowden stole, combined with his clearly dishonest claim that he carefully read all of them — a troubling picture emerges. Edward Snowden could not have read all of these documents, nor could he possibly have the understanding to contextualize and explain them to anyone else. Moreover, the journalists who have helped him push this lie into the public have, themselves, lied about both the content of these documents (namely, the damage that would result from unredacted disclosure) and their extent.

This leaves me with the same question that’s been bugging me since this whole scandal picked up speed. If the source, and the journalists closest to him, are lying — constantly — why on earth should we trust them to report on their documents honestly? At this point, I have no faith that they will do so — and I think it is safe to assume that if they find evidence that the law is followed, or a document exonerating the President, they will refuse to publish it because it would weaken their argument.

As a journalist, that refusal to employ the truth in reporting, even if it cuts against your own biases, is deeply abhorrent. And I’m shocked it isn’t abhorrent to more of us.

Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.