Edward Snowden gave a jaw-dropping interview with the New York Times‘ James Risen about his life in Russia and how he has safeguarded the information he leaked from the NSA in June. I say “jaw-dropping” because many of his statements clash with previous claims he has made about himself, both personally and through trusted intermediaries like Glenn Greenwald. When seen as a whole, they raise deeply troubling questions about both his honesty and his capacity to safeguard from harm the secrets to which he still clings.
Recently, a group of dissident former U.S. intelligence employees visited Snowden in Moscow. Called the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, they presented him with an award for truth telling. The Times reported:
Mr. Snowden’s location and movements appear to be coordinated with the Russian government, if not controlled by officials. Mr. Kucherena is known to be close to the Kremlin, and the coordination seemed to be confirmed by the ability of state media crews with ties to the government to meet Lon Snowden at the airport. Mr. Snowden confirmed several weeks ago that he was obtaining a Russian visa and intended to visit his son, but his precise travel plans had not been disclosed.
When they say “close to the Kremlin,” they mean Kucherena is an employee of the FSB, post-Soviet Russia’s successor to the KGB. The FSB lawyer, Kucherena, has also said he was living under armed guard (provided by whom?) and in hiding in Russia — ostensibly to protect him from the U.S., and not to keep him under tabs. Nevertheless, those Sam Adams Associates have insisted that “Edward Snowden is not being controlled by the Russians.”
It is difficult to square the known details of Snowden’s circumstances in Russia with the statements made by interested outsiders on his behalf.
Snowden has contributed to this confused state of affairs about himself. When his father, Lon, visited him last week in Moscow, he said “his son told him he had had no contact with Russian security or intelligence.”
Again, considering his own lawyer is employed by the FSB — an intelligence service — and he was under armed guard, this is a difficult statement to take at face value.
In his interview with the Times, Snowden makes several claims that are either incredible at face value, or directly contradicted by his previous statements. For example, Risen reports Snowden says “he gave all of the classified documents he had obtained to journalists he met in Hong Kong, before flying to Moscow, and did not keep any copies for himself.”
This is sharply at odds with his statements to journalists both while in Hong Kong and after he had left for Russia. Snowden reportedly met with Ewan McCaskill, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras in early June; they parted ways two days after the June 7 video posted to the Guardian website where Snowden outed himself. Yet Snowden then handed documents over to the South China Morning Post on June 12, where he personally promised more disclosures:
“The documents he divulged to the Post were obtained at Booz Allen Hamilton in April, he said. He intends to leak more of those documents later.
“If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published.”
Subsequently, on July 14, while Snowden was already in Moscow, Glenn Greenwald referred to a conversation he had with Snowden from four hours earlier. “He has the instruction manual for how the NSA is built.” He told reporters, in the present tense, “Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had.”
Greenwald meant it as a sort of graymail (threatening the U.S. government with grave harm if his client is harmed), but it was revelatory in other ways as well: that claim contradicts an earlier statement Snowden had made about the kinds of documents he exfiltrated from the NSA. In his first interview with Greenwald, Poitras, and McCaskill, Snowden 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.”
He purposely chose, he said, to give the documents to journalists whose judgment he trusted about what should be public and what should remain concealed.
It is difficult to deconflict “harming people isn’t my goal” with “enough information to cause harm to the U.S. governing in a single minute than any other person has ever had.”
Similarly, in July, Greenwald said Snowden had taken “literally thousands of documents,” yet a month earlier Snowden insisted he “carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest.”
It is unclear how Snowden could review thousands of documents, totally tens of thousands of pages, to make sure they were legitimately in the public interest while also taking enough to cause irreparable harm to the U.S. government as an implicit threat against his arrest.
But even that claim of thousands of documents has an awful lot of wiggle room. Greenwald, who seems to be Snowden’s unofficial spokesman to the media, has offered a continuously changing number of documents Snowden has taken. In addition, outside sources who claim to have seen the same tranche also offer wildly differing estimates of its size.
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. But 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, the New York Times said the Guardian shared with them “more than 50,000″ documents.
To repeat: claims that fluctuate this wildly from source to source over a very short period of time are simply not credible.
Snowden’s claims have stretched credulity from the start. One of the most anodyne, that he made $200,000 a year working for Booz Allen Hamilton, went up in smoke when his own employer said it wasn’t the case. He claimed that when he worked for the CIA in 2007 he “had access to every CIA station in the world,” something even branch chiefs, who outrank him, do not have.
He told a former U.S. Senator that he had not “provided any information that would harm our people – agent or not” and that he had no intention of doing so. Yet when Spiegel, who published the same tranche of documents Snowden handed to Laura Poitras, looked them over, it made a frightening revelation: it simple was not true. They wrote: “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.”
Either Spiegel is misleading its readers, or Snowden is misleading the Senator. Both statements cannot coincide and be truthful.
Snowden went on to tell the former Senator, “no intelligence service – not even our own – has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect.” Yet he told James Risen, “What would be the unique value of personally carrying another copy of the materials onward?”
“I continue to protect” the documents is not a compatible statement with saying he did not control them because they were out of his possession. He was misleading either the former U.S. Senator or the New York Times reporter.
These continuous rhetorical slights of hand — his story about a drunk-driving banker in Geneva has been disputed by the President of Switzerland — make the unverifiable claims in his interview difficult to accept at face value.
For example, when Snowden claims that “There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents,” it must be reconciled with the story about a laptop supposedly containing at least some documents going missing under mysterious circumstances from Glenn Greenwald’s home in Brazil. (What kind of thief would break into a home with ten dogs but only steal one computer?)
Furthermore, since Snowden gave his tranche over to Greenwald, McCaskill, and Poitras, the documents have been shared with The Guardian staff (who had todestroy a computer containing some), The Washington Post, O Globo, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, ProPublica (which received them via FedEx), along random assorted novelists and activists and others brought into the inner circle to commiserate about surveillance. All told, it amounts to dozens of people withcompletely unknown computer security habits — and one of those activists evensaid, “if the NSA wants in to your computer, it’s in. Period.”
Let us, for the sake of argument, also assume Snowden never plugged his thumb drives (or decoy laptops – another verifiably false claim he made) into the internet while in Hong Kong. Let us assume further that he never actually took them to Russia, a claim difficult to square with earlier statements both he and his supporters have made. Let us assume he never slept, or took a drink from a sympathetic stranger, or closed his eyes. Let us assume the Chinese and Russian intelligence services — literally the only peer equals to the U.S. in terms of skill and effectiveness — did not get copies from him personally.
None of that matters. The moment Snowden, the 29-year old security genius who’d been a government hacker for all of three years and thus knew everything there was to know about Chinese and Russian capabilities, gave up direct and exclusive control of his information he lost the capacity to make solemn assertions that neither Beijing nor Moscow could possibly have that documents.
Realistically, with the slightest hint of reality poking its head in, it is difficult to see how Russia and China do not have his entire archive of documents. To argue otherwise is to ignore the reality of how those intel services work and how loose Snowden’s own operational security were.
Indeed, reading Snowden’s own account of how his work in Geneva turned him sour on the intelligence community does not reveal a principled man of unrivaled genius, but instead a petty man driven by insecurities. This incident seems to have been transformative:
Several months later, Mr. Snowden said, he was writing his annual self-evaluation when he discovered flaws in the software of the C.I.A.’s personnel Web applications that would make them vulnerable to hacking. He warned his supervisor, he said, but his boss advised him to drop the matter and not rock the boat. After a technical team also brushed him off, he said, his boss finally agreed to allow him to test the system to prove that it was flawed.
He did so by adding some code and text “in a nonmalicious manner” to his evaluation document that showed that the vulnerability existed, he said. His immediate supervisor signed off on it and sent it through the system, but a more senior manager — the man Mr. Snowden had challenged earlier — was furious and filed a critical comment in Mr. Snowden’s personnel file, he said.
“The incident,” Risen says Snowden told him, “convinced him that trying to work through the system would only lead to punishment.”
That isn’t a whistleblower so concerned with civil liberties he gave up paradise to defend them. It is a bruised ego.
Perhaps that is the key to so much of this saga. No matter the ever-changing story he tells the world about himself, no matter his forged resume or his early involvement with the Russian government during his stay in Hong Kong, the driver underneath it all is the enormous egos of the people involved — both Snowden and, to a large degree, Greenwald himself. Perhaps that is why so much of the reporting turns out, on second and third glance, to be wrong — whethermalfeasance by the reporter or the biggest source, Snowden himself, lying constantly.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Edward Snowden is an unreliable narrator of his own story, telling lies with a regularity and severity that would make James Clapper blush with humility. Yet despite that, huge swaths of the media and commentary communities still hang off his every single word, treating them like Gospel proclamations of truth so holy his own lies cannot unravel them.
It is a brilliant, and brilliantly successful, con job. And it is equally remarkable and depressing to watch.