Everywhere in the media ecosystem over the weekend, we were seeing thoughtless repetitions of The Sunday Times article, British Spies Betrayed to Russians and Chinese. According to the article, “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, according to senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services.” There is just one problem: it isn’t true. It is just yet another round of the national security operations in the US and UK making yet another push to vilify Snowden — and by extension all whistleblowers.
The article does not contain any information except that anonymous sources claim that MI6 had to pull these officers. But we do have actual evidence that pushes against this. To begin with, Snowden has always claimed that he destroyed his files after turning them over to journalists while in Hong Kong. As Glenn Greenwald noted, “How, then, could Russia have obtained Snowden’s files as the story claims — ‘his documents were encrypted but they weren’t completely secure’ — if he did not even have physical possession of them?” What’s more, Ryan Gallagher reported, “I’ve reviewed the Snowden documents and I’ve never seen anything in there naming active MI6 agents.”
The article is also filled with what can only be claimed sloppy journalism. It repeats the claim that Snowden took 1.7 million documents. The NSA has never claimed this. All they’ve said is that in the course of his work over years as a contractor, he had accessed that many documents. Gallagher responded, “I’ve seen the trove of documents; the claim or insinuation that he leaked 1.7 million is not true.”
The bigger problem is that there is no evidence that any agents have actually been moved. This seems like just another excuse to complain about Snowden — especially after public opinion has started to shift in his direction after the recent passage of the USA Freedom Act. But it is certainly possible that MI6 agents had to be moved. But there is no reason to think that this has anything to do with an intelligence failure — much less that the intelligence failure was due to Snowden. Russia and China, of course, are always working on hacking into spying activities of other countries — including each other’s. Throwing China and Russia together as some kind of unitary force should have raised flags with the original reporters — and certainly with those who have pushed the story since.
What’s notable about this is that reporters give anonymous status to government officials pushing the official government line. This is not journalism. Providing anonymity to someone who would face retribution is a different matter. As Glenn Greenwald put it, “The official accusers are being hidden by the journalists so nobody can confront them or hold them accountable when it turns out to be false.” This is truly journalism as stenography. Instead of speaking truth to power, it is obscuring truth for power.