Reporter Barton Gellman Explains Why It's Extremely Unlikely The Russians Or Chinese Have Snowden's Documents
from the he-knows-what-he's-doing dept
Wednesday’s Fresh Air on NPR was devoted entirely to a wonderful interview with Barton Gellman, one of the three reporters (along with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald) who Edward Snowden initially gave his complete set of documents to. The whole interview is interesting, though if you’ve been following this story for the last few months, you’ll have heard much of it before. Perhaps the two most interesting sections, however, are his discussions on Edward Snowden’s intentions with all of this. Many have ascribed comically nefarious intent. Gellman has a fairly compelling explanation for why that’s unlikely. First, he explains that Snowden could have easily just dumped all of these documents somewhere public:
“[Snowden] gave these documents, ultimately, to only three journalists. What he said he wanted was for us to use our own judgment and to make sure that his bias was kept out of it so that we could make our own judgment about what was newsworthy and important for the public to know. And he said we should also consider how to avoid harm.
“Now, in case anyone doubts his intentions, let’s consider what he could’ve done. If Chelsea [aka Bradley] Manning was able to exfiltrate and send to WikiLeaks and publish in whole half a million U.S. government documents, Edward Snowden — who is far, far more capable [and] had far greater access, certainly knows how to transmit documents — he could’ve sent them to WikiLeaks. He could’ve set up and mirrored around the Internet in a way that could not have been taken down. All of the documents could be public right now and they’re not. … He told us not to do it.”
Elsewhere in the discussion, he goes further:
Writing an editorial about the risk that Snowden… or that implies that Snowden is about to or may already have handed over all of his information to Wikileaks or to the Russians is entirely without evidence. It is pure speculation. There is strong evidence, now three months after his first disclosures, and more than three months after he started giving information to journalists, that he does not intend to make the whole pile public. He could have done it on the first day. He could have done it months before I ever heard of him.
He then goes on to explain why it’s incredibly unlikely that Snowden gave the documents to the Russians or the Chinese, despite many assuming that to be the case.
As far as the speculation that the Chinese or Russian governments have obtained access to this information — that they have the whole pile, so that this alleged judiciousness by the journalists is pointless — that is not only speculative, I think I have very strong evidence that it is not the case. I know how Snowden operates. I’ve disclosed some of it. I have not disclosed all of it — just because he has unmasked himself doesn’t mean that there are no confidences left in the relationship.
He is exceptionally skilled at digital self-defense. In fact, one of his jobs, while he was at the NSA, and while he was employed by the CIA, was to teach courses to US national security officials about how to operate in a high-threat digital environment even on untrusted hardware — essentially how you do secret business overseas without being surveilled by the other side.
I believe that he has rendered himself incapable of opening the archive while in Russia. That is to say, it’s not only that he doesn’t have the key anymore. It’s that there’s nothing for the key to open any more. It’s that he has rendered the encrypted information literally impossible to open with what he has in his possession. He has told a former Senator in a letter that even under torture he couldn’t give the information to the Russians. And that’s not a boast about his alleged ability to withstand torture. That is a statement of fact about his capabilities. He simply can’t open it. And that means that the Russians can’t get it.
Terry Gross then asks about the claim by some that it’s hypocritical of Snowden to talk up freedoms and openness… and then run to China and end up getting (temporary) asylum in Russia. Gellman explains, as we and others have in the past, how much of that is due to necessity, in part because of the US government’s own bumbling response. But he also notes something more interesting and a bit deeper about Snowden’s intent:
I’ve not heard any statement from Snowden that talks about Russia as some bastion of freedom. He has very practical reasons for being there. I mean, if he flies to some western democracy, he’s going to be extradited. He doesn’t want to be. It’s not, purely, a question of self-preservation, although everyone has those motives. He said early on that he would like not only to expose behavior that he thinks is wrong and dangerous to American democracy, but that he also wanted to set a new kind of model for whistleblowing.
There has never been someone who came out and raised his hand and said “I did it.” And there is, for practical purposes, never been someone who did this without having his life pretty much destroyed for a period of time or for a very long time. And he wanted to say “it is possible — and here’s how — to make public disclosures that you’re not authorized to make, and live a full and normal life afterwards.” Not necessarily in the United States, but you can start a debate — that many many people regard as a legitimate debate — and find refuge somewhere. He obviously did not intend to go to Russia, he told me his first choice, if he had a choice, was Iceland, which is a very freedom protective society. He’s in Russia because he got stuck there. In fact, Russian President Putin said that the United States made an elementary error of tradecraft in withdrawing his passport at the moment he was in transit to Russia. The United States actually trapped him there. He did not intend to stay.
Again, some of these answers we’ve heard or discussed before, including Snowden’s letter to former Senator Gordon Humphrey about why the Russians could never get the information out of him. While some people bizarrely assumed this meant he thought he could resist torture, I think most people realized this meant he no longer had access to the documents himself, and thus couldn’t give them up.
There’s a lot more in the interview, and I highly recommend taking a listen. If only NPR had an embed feature, I’d embed it here.