The Pulitzer Prize In Bullshit FUD Reporting Goes To… The Sunday Times For Its 'Snowden Expose'

from the journalism! dept

Let’s start with this. Soon after Daniel Ellsberg was revealed as the source behind the Pentagon Papers, White House officials started spreading rumors that Ellsberg was actually a Soviet spy and that he’d passed on important secrets to the Russians:

None of it was true, but it was part of a concerted effort by administration officials to smear Ellsberg as a “Soviet spy” and a “traitor” when all he really did was blow the whistle on things by sharing documents with reporters.

Does that sound familiar? Over the weekend, a big story supposedly broke in the UK’s the Sunday Times, citing anonymous UK officials arguing that the Russians and Chinese got access to all the Snowden documents and it had created all sorts of issues, including forcing the UK to remove undercover “agents” from Russia. That story is behind a paywall, but plenty of people have made the text available if you’d like to read the whole thing.

There are all sorts of problems with the report that make it not just difficult to take seriously, but which actually raise a lot more questions about what kind of “reporting” the Sunday Times actually does. It’s also worth noting that this particular story comes out just about a week or so after Jason Leopold revealed some of the details of the secret plan to discredit Snowden that was hatched in DC. Even so, the journalism here is beyond shoddy, getting key facts flat out incorrect, allowing key sources to remain anonymous for no reason, and not appearing to raise any questions about the significant holes in the story.

Snowden has made it clear for well over a year that once he gave the documents to the original journalists, he got rid of them and no longer had them — so he wouldn’t even be able to give them to anyone else, even if they wanted them. Yet, the article insists that the Russians got them, and originally included a claim that supposedly ties the documents to Snowden in Moscow:

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.

David Miranda, the boyfriend of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was seized at Heathrow in 2013 in possession of 58,000 ?highly classified? intelligence documents after visiting Snowden in Moscow.

During the ensuing court hearing Oliver Robbins, then deputy national security adviser in the Cabinet Office, said that the release of the information ?would do serious damage to UK national security, and ultimately put lives at risk?.

Except, that middle paragraph is simply factually incorrect — as basically any report on the original detention would have made clear. Miranda had been in Berlin with Laura Poitras, and not in Moscow with Snowden. After this rather important factual error was pointed out repeatedly… the Sunday Times simply deleted it with no retraction or correction. Down the memory hole. Well, except if you have the paper copy:

Considering that that point is sort of a key string in the narrative of putting the documents in Russia — the fact that it is flat out false (despite the easy fact checking) should call into question the rest of the story. But there are even more problems with it the deeper you dig. Craig Murray, a former ambassador and diplomat for the UK has written the best explanation saying that the story “is a lie.” He highlights five very serious problems with the story, starting with the fact that the terminology is wrong. In the article, the anonymous government official is quoted as follows:

A senior Downing Street source said: ?It is the case that Russians and Chinese have information. It has meant agents have had to be moved and that knowledge of how we operate has stopped us getting vital information.”

Except, as Murray notes, no actual government source who was familiar with these things would mistake an “agent” for an “officer.”

Yet the schoolboy mistake is made of confusing officers and agents. MI6 is staffed by officers. Their informants are agents. In real life, James Bond would not be a secret agent. He would be an MI6 officer. Those whose knowledge comes from fiction frequently confuse the two. Nobody really working with the intelligence services would do so, as the Sunday Times source does. The story is a lie.

He also dismisses the “blood on his hands” money quote given in the article. That line was directed at Snowden — though, it was almost immediately undercut within the same exact article by someone noting “there is no evidence of anyone being harmed.” It’s almost as if no one actually bothered to think through the propaganda message. Murray points out that the idea that any officers would be in danger is hogwash. Beyond the fact that the Russian and Chinese don’t kill western spies (they just kick them out of the country), there’s the simple fact that such info would never be in the documents Snowden had:

Rule No.1 in both the CIA and MI6 is that agents? identities are never, ever written down, neither their names nor a description that would allow them to be identified.

This same point is further confirmed by Ryan Gallagher, one of the journalists who does have access to the Snowden files and says that there is no such information in them.

This was a surprise to me because I’ve reviewed the Snowden documents and I’ve never seen anything in there naming active MI6 agents. Were the agents pulled out as a precautionary measure? Keeping in mind that the UK government does not actually know exactly what Snowden leaked, how do these officials know there were documents in there that implicated MI6 operatives and live operations in the first place?

Murray further notes that the Russians are already pretty sure they know who the UK’s spies are (and vice versa) and even if they were revealed in the documents, which he doesn’t think is true, there’d be no reason to remove anyone anyway.

The Sunday Times piece further repeats the long repudiated claim that Snowden’s cache included 1.7 million documents — a number that even the NSA now admits was bunk and based solely on the number of documents he “touched,” not those Snowden actually took.

Then there’s this point, raised by security professor Matthew Green: If the intelligence agencies really believed that Snowden was carrying such damaging documents on his person, why would they strand him in Moscow by pulling his passport? Another potential problem: at one point, the article implies that Snowden may have handed the documents over as part of a “deal” with the Russian or Chinese, but in another part of the article, it discusses how the Russians and Chinese cracked the encryption on the stash. So which is it? Did he hand them over, or were they encrypted?

The whole thing is such a shoddy piece of propaganda that it seems almost hilarious… and would be if actual serious news sites weren’t repeating the claims, often with little question. The BBC was quick to put up a piece repeating the claims — though it has since added a few dissenting viewpoints. Many other UK tabloids have more or less repeated the claims. The only paper that seems to be strongly pushing back is The Guardian (which published the first Snowden revelation and many later ones as well). It has been raising lots of questions about the original reporting, demanding answers from the UK government about the claims and actually willing to call out the report as “low on facts, high on assertions.”

Is it possible that others have access to these documents? Sure. Of course, the world itself has seen many of them, thanks to reporters revealing them publicly (something Snowden himself never did).

Still, even back when Snowden was in Hong Kong, intelligence community defenders insisted it meant that China had the documents. And the second he was in Moscow, they insisted that Russia had them too. In this case, it honestly sounds like the naive reporters at the Sunday Times took that “speculation” and wrote an entire story about it, searching for quotes that would confirm the thesis, but not doing any actual journalistic activity. So they got their story, and it’s now quite easy to poke it full of very large holes.

Of course the timing on this is even more suspect. It comes out just as a report was published in the UK that slammed some aspects of government surveillance, and it seems noteworthy that right before this, there was a sudden upsurge in ridiculous and slightly unhinged fear mongering about Snowden himself — none of which comes with any actual evidence, only angry speculation. It’s almost as if governments pushing for greater surveillance powers might mount a coordinated propaganda campaign to smear the one guy who has been exposing their bullshit.

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Comments on “The Pulitzer Prize In Bullshit FUD Reporting Goes To… The Sunday Times For Its 'Snowden Expose'”

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40 Comments
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

The best propaganda money can buy is this?

They are counting on the memories of people being short, and having no critical thinking skills… and given the reborn hysteria over dihydromonoxidie it doesn’t take much.

People need to stop blindly accepting what the talking head tells them, because it just bolsters the imaginations of those they support. Despite real facts, we have people repeating fiction and clinging to it even after its disproven for the 100th time.

Snowden didn’t sell us out, our leaders did.
Despite all of their hysteria and fearmongering, Snowden did less than their buddy they gave a pass to.
We are not less safe today because of Snowden, we are less safe because our leaders believe in magical thinking to keep us safe… look at all of the documents “stolen” over the course of a long term hack, hundreds of pages of information on people working in sensitive places because they failed to protect it while pouring billions into recording calls that haven’t lead to anything worthwhile.

Perhaps this great story is just trying to spin the narrative to keep people from looking at the complete failure at every level of many governments and remind us that terrorists are in every pot, under every bed, and will snatch your children from Wal-Mart if you don’t submit to another cavity search.

Edward Teach says:

Re: Best Propaganda Money Can Buy

After reading how many egregious flaws appear in this story, I have to wonder if some higher up at The Times didn’t demand that such a story appear, but then everyone below the higher up colluded to produce something as goofy and confused as possible because they knew such an article was a giant smear job.

That is, the article is as close to a prank as possible, yest still can convince some 1%er Patriot that Snowden got smeared. And the writers, fact checkers and editors were all in on it. There’s just no way so many errors can appear in one single article. It’s almost fractally in error.

If so: I salute you, mates!

simality (profile) says:

Re: Re: Best Propaganda Money Can Buy

This isn’t an impossible scenario, but the pressure would have to come from real high. Like Board of Directors level. In the US, if a government official went to an editor in chief and attempted to pressure them into publishing something they didn’t want to the government official would probably see an exposé published about them instead.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Best Propaganda Money Can Buy

In the US, if a government official went to an editor in chief and attempted to pressure them into publishing something they didn’t want to the government official would probably see an exposé published about them instead.

How you didn’t get voted funny I’ll never know

simality (profile) says:

Re: Re: Best Propaganda Money Can Buy

Something I feel obligated to point out though is that newspapers are dying. I do tech support for a large newspaper company in the US. Most of the papers are running on a skeleton crew. For many, fact checkers are a thing of the past.

It’s so bad that circulation is now called “audience development”.

Most editors do their best to hold the line on integrity. But when you are trying to do so much with so little, shit gets through.

On the other hand, this is a Murdoch Property and they are known to be ethically challenged.

cypherspace (profile) says:

I strongly suspect this story is an attempt to CYA for any damage resulting from the OPM data breach. I realize this story is about British intelligence agents – and the data breach occurred within the US gov – but the US & UK work hand-in-hand on many issues + the people who eat this story up aren’t going to think too critically about these points…

Ambrellite (profile) says:

Re: Response to: cypherspace on Jun 15th, 2015 @ 6:30am

That speculation makes sense. We’ve seen similar CYA attempts before. Getting everybody distracted, and getting informed journalists to waste time debunking this may give them some breathing room to spin the OPM hacks in the media circuit.

But I don’t think millions of government employees are going to forget overnight.

nottheofficialstory says:

Gov't PSY-OPS using your need for an opposition hero.

The possibility still remains no matter how much you believe — even if “Snowden” has done some good.

It’s a limited hang-out.

Key evidence is that “mainstream media” keep running the story, while other whistleblowers are left to obscurity.

Secondary evidence is that Greenwald is still gatekeeping on alleged trove, Omidyar who funds Greenwald may even be mentioned in the docs for giving NSA access to Paypal.

But for me the clincher is that we got so little, no more than I knew before Snowden.

Anyway, Techdirt as ever keeps FAR from the core of the Snowden story:

Snowden said “direct access”; Google denied it then “doubled down”:
http://gigaom.com/2013/07/09/snowden-maintains-the-nsa-has-direct-access-to-company-servers-which-means-someone-is-lying/
Yes, someone is lying! — Don’t overlook that BOTH Snowden and Google could be lying. We can only judge by how what they say serves the surveillance state. My opinion is that Snowden has done nothing but inform the dolts. Any revolt has been defused and diffused with textbook technique of fake opposition.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Gov't PSY-OPS using your need for an opposition hero.

Yeah nothing has changed. People still ignore everything because “muh conspiracy tinfoil hat”.
It doesnt matter how much evidence is out or if the government officially admit something. Most people just simply repeat what their favorite “reporter” or entertrainer tells them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

From Schindler’s Wikipedia page:

… a former NSA intelligence analyst and counterintelligence officer (1996–2004) …
His comments and analysis, particularly those criticizing Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have often been met with fierce criticism and aversion. Schindler resigned his post at the Naval War College after a scandal involving nude images of himself leaked online.

Sounds like he’s on a European tour.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: Newspapers have been known to lie on their own initative

Maybe.

Another possibility is that it went down like this-

Editor to reporter: We’ve received a very strong, ahem, suggestion from HM’s government to write a story about this (hands over an outline).

Reporter: (looks over outline) But, this doesn’t make any sense. It’s crazy.

Editor: Well, perhaps. But this is very important to people whose good graces we need to stay in. And they say it’s true.

Reporter: But (long list of reasons).

Editor: Yes, well, I’m sorry but you work here and I work here and this is something we need to do. If you want to keep working here. If you know what I mean.

Reporter: Um. Ok.

Reporter proceeds to write story but deliberately introduces obvious errors that will discredit the story…

Flyinginn says:

Yest another Snowden smear

Regrettably the BBC has nailed its colours to the mast by running with this story unchecked, as fact. Watching the utter bollox being repeated deadpan was like seeing an old friend on Thorazine. At the same time, and conspicuous by its absence, was any mention of the more recent Chinese mass hack into US security personnel data. Apparently the Licence Fee threat was enough to whip Aunty into cowering submission.

David says:

Nice try

Now the obvious conclusion here is that the breach of the OPM data bases discovered last week is in serious need of scapegoats. Assuming that we are talking about British officers or agents indeed, how could they get implicated? This is not all that hard to figure out: including the breached data were the security clearance databases.

Obviously, no entries were likely marked “MI5 spy”. However, the mere presence of British “civilians” in such a database indicating a U.S. clearance level would seem suspicious.

So obviously, this is really bad news and nobody wants to own it. “Let’s blame it on Snowden” is an obvious first impulse.

Now Snowden’s stashes are offline and outdated, and those stashes resulted from an online collection of material available to an outsourced sysadmin in Hawaii. If data of that kind suddenly appeared in the hand of hackers, it is much more likely that they worked on cracking the online traffic.

But let’s swallow the premise for a moment: let’s assume that Chinese and Russian officials or non-officials were able to defeat Snowden’s encryption just now. Nobody suggests that they did so because of Snowden being compromised but rather because of bad encryption.

Now of course this paints a very impressive picture of the personal integrity, incorruptibility and technical prowess of Snowden according to the view of the NSA.

But if Snowden who has been working with really high risk data and really state-of-the-art technology fully aware of the large stakes here was incapable of safely encrypting an offline stash, then the online databases will not fare better. And if they don’t, maintaining all that stuff online that either Snowden or the OPM crackers were able to pull out is an accident waiting to happen.

Well, it happened. And happened again. And will happen again. And reflexively blaming Snowden for it every time will look more and more ridiculous.

I suspect that the clearance databases also contain goofiness ratings specifying what amount of absurdity various officials are permitted to excrete. It would appear that the current news could only be passed by “Anonymous Source”, the top-ranked goofficial.

aldestrawk says:

58,000 files?

Again, it is repeated that Miranda was carrying 58,000 documents. You might imagine that the forensic techs working for the UK government simply counted all the encrypted files. It is not very likely these files were just sitting there individually encrypted. The whole set was probably doubly encrypted by putting all these individual files into an encrypted drive or volume. In fact Greenwald et al. used TrueCrypt which is oriented to encrypting entire drives. There would be no way then to know, even the approximate, number of files contained in that volume(s).
I am surprised the Sunday Times did not mention that Miranda was found to have a written password on him. When the UK government mentioned this they were clearly hinting that the password was capable of decrypting the supposed 58,000 files. In an article based on the Sunday Times story, Business Insider did mention this password:

http://www.businessinsider.com/snowden-russia-china-and-nsa-files-2015-6

Of course, the UK government was just hinting at that when, in fact, that password was unrelated to the encryption of any files obtained from Snowden. This was an attempt to show the journalists (and couriers) who were handling these sensitive files were practicing poor operational security. The disclosure that China and Russia have access to the entire cache of unencrypted documents obtained by Snowed. may be a further attempt by the UK not just to smear Snowden, but to use their apparent failure at operational security to justify detaining, or even arrest of, any of the journalists who have access to these files or to confiscate any computer or device they can find that holds those encrypted files.

Gary Mont (profile) says:

Oxymoron R Us

With every revelation made by the documents Snowden rescued from the NSA, his popularity grows, and the public’s determination to see the criminals in office and their minions pay for their crimes grows with it.

Desperation leads to desperate measures.

I mean, its not like the Intelligence Community actually considers “intelligence” to be a prerequisite for employees and directors.

Cunning, a silver tongue, and a willing to do whatever it takes to get rich, are traits that are far more revered by the Intelligence Community than actual intelligence.

Obviously.

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