You’re right to be skeptical over Sunday Times Snowden story

The Sunday Times published an alarming story in the UK this weekend, suggesting that the lives of British and American spies have been put at risk after Russian and Chinese authorities gained access to over a million documents taken by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.


You can read the full story – entitled “British spies betrayed to Russians and Chinese” – from the Sunday Times here (behind a Murdoch paywall), but for your convenience I have included some snippets below.

Sunday Times 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.

Western intelligence agencies say they have been forced into the rescue operations after Moscow gained access to more than 1m classified files held by the former American security contractor, who fled to seek protection from Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, after mounting one of the largest leaks in US history.

Senior government sources confirmed that China had also cracked the encrypted documents, which contain details of secret intelligence techniques and information that could allow British and American spies to be identified.

One senior Home Office official accused Snowden of having “blood on his hands”, although Downing Street said there was “no evidence of anyone being harmed”.

Anonymous manSo far, you’ll notice, all of the sources for the article appear anonymously.

No-one it seems is prepared to put their name alongside the allegations that Russia and China have managed to get their paws on the Snowden files.

Not Prime Minister David Cameron, not Foreign Minister Philip Hammond, not current GCHQ head Robert Hannigan. All of them presumably could have given the story more gravitas by associating themselves to the claims, but they chose not to.

If the UK authorities really have evidence that Russia and China have access to the files taken by Edward Snowden, and that intelligence staff have been put in fear of their lives, why wouldn’t someone in a position of authority be prepared to come out and say it?

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As I’ve described on this site before, and as Robert Graham has said in this particular instance, we have to be suspicious of stories sourced solely from anonymous government officials.

You should ask yourself: why are they unnamed sources? Why won’t they go on the record? What do they hope to gain by making the claims anonymously rather than transparently?

Sir David OmandIn fact, the *only* named person quoted in the article is Sir David Omand, the former director of GCHQ.

The Sunday Times told him that China and Russia had their hands on Snowden’s files and he was able to provide some suitably outraged soundbites:

Sir David Omand, the former director of GCHQ, said the news that Russia and China had access to Snowden’s material was a “huge strategic setback” that was “harming” to Britain, America and their Nato allies.

Omand said the leaked information would enable China and Russia to plug any of their intelligence capability gaps and warned that could spark “a global intelligence arms race”.

“I have no doubt whatever that programmes are being launched and money is being spent to try and catch up,” he said. “That’s probably true not just of China and Russia but a number of other nations who have seen some of this material to be published.

“I am not at all surprised that people are being pulled back and operations where people are exposed are having to be shut down, at least for the moment.”

Note that Sir David Omand doesn’t confirm that China and Russia have the Snowden files. He no longer runs GCHQ. He’s merely responding to the claims brought to him by the Sunday Times.

It’s important to stress that – just like Sir David Omand – I have no way of knowing whether Russian or Chinese intelligence have access to the Snowden files too, but I am not going to base my opinion on whether that it likely to be true or not on “anonymous government sources” who have whispered it to trusting journalists.

But even some MPs in the ruling Conservative Party appear to be skeptical of the claims published in the Sunday Times, as The Guardian reports:

Responding to the Sunday Times, David Davis, the Conservative MP who is one of the leading campaigners for privacy, said: “We have to treat all of these things with a pinch of salt.” He said the use of an anonymous source to create scare stories was a typical tactic and the timing was comfortable for the government.

“You can see they have been made nervous by Anderson. We have not been given any facts, just assertions,” he said.

The story also appears to be confused as to whether it is alleging that Snowden *gave* the files to the Russians, or if they took them and have somehow managed to crack their encryption. After all, if Snowden really had given the files willingly to Moscow, why would encryption be an issue?

Whether this is simply journalists or a subeditor dumbing down a story for a mainstream news audience, or evidence of a garbled claim from “anonymous sources” is unclear – but it certainly doesn’t make any sense.

Let’s carry on with some more from the anonymous sources breathlessly quoted by the Sunday Times:

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. There is no evidence of anyone being harmed.”

The confirmation is the first evidence that Snowden’s disclosures have exacted a human toll. “Why do you think Snowden ended up in Russia?” said a senior Home Office source. “Putin didn’t give him asylum for nothing. His documents were encrypted but they weren’t completely secure and we have now seen our agents and assets being targeted.”

A British intelligence source said: “We know Russia and China have access to Snowden’s material and will be going through it for years to come, searching for clues to identify potential targets.

“Snowden has done incalculable damage. In some cases the agencies have been forced to intervene and lift their agents from operations to prevent them from being identified and killed.”

Okay, so – as Guardian journalist Kevin Rawlinson pointed out on Twitter – we have a situation where despite Snowden having “blood on his hands”, Downing Street spokespeople won’t actually go so far as to say that anyone has been harmed.

That’s funny enough, but as former ambassador Craig Murray points out, the article mixes up agents and informants – raising questions about its reliability.

MI6 officers, says Murray, are officers – who work under the cover of diplomatic immunity as members of the British Embassy:

“The argument that MI6 officers are at danger of being killed by the Russians or Chinese is a nonsense. No MI6 officer has been killed by the Russians or Chinese for 50 years. The worst that could happen is they would be sent home. Agents’ – generally local people, as opposed to MI6 officers – identities would not be revealed in the Snowden documents.”

Sunday TimesAll of this makes you wonder – why have anonymous government and intelligence sources briefed the Sunday Times about this dubious story? And why wasn’t the Sunday Times more skeptical and demand more evidence?

And why are the Americans so quiet? Wouldn’t you expect them to be concerned if the Chinese and Russians had access to the Snowden files? In fact, if the story was true, wouldn’t you expect all of the Five Eyes countries to be withdrawing staff from the field?

Is it possible that the timing of these revelations to the media coincide with the UK government’s plans for a Snooper’s Charter is intentional, or are we really to believe it is sheer coincidence?

Further reading:

Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

8 comments on “You’re right to be skeptical over Sunday Times Snowden story”

  1. david L

    It's a damn shame that our governments resort to lying propaganda to try and get what they are after,knowing the vast majority of the people are P.O.ed about the abuse of power they continue to demonstrate. They forget that they too,put their pants on one leg at a time! But they are counting on the low information voters out there to generate support.

  2. Robert Bennet

    This all results from the CIA/Mossad false flag 9/11 genocide of over 2700 civilians in the Twin Towers in 11th September 2001 – the intended catastrophic, catalyzing event. The deception goes on.

  3. RealityBites

    The Russians nor the Chinese had any need what so ever for Snowden’s Information, with the state of the entire USA cyber infrastructure they could remote in and retrieve any information they wanted at will.

    The ignorant pommy’s just made a laughing stock out of themselves with anyone having an IQ over 75. They probably got Blair’s speech writer to write the story.

  4. Jimmy

    UK journalism is as half assed as it comes. Take any and everything they report with a mound of salt. We're lucky if there is 20% truth in anything they write.

  5. Jim

    The odd part to me is that if a country discovered spies in its midst then wouldn't they keep it quiet and monitor them, perhaps "feeding" them titbits.

    After all if a spy is known then half the battle is won, those who know can make sure the spy learns what they want the spy to learn.

  6. ladyjan

    They want to know who the source about the leak, so why should they tell, then their life will be in danger like the other spies. And the reason why the American are not saying anything because China has broke into the government data base and collect all the employees personal information. And anything else they got their hands on. We don't need to tell, the proof is in front of us.

  7. Publio Vestrone

    You know, when I stand back and look at all this drama not as a “citizen” of this country or that , but rather from the perspective of a rational humanoid — in other words, as a person who just wants to get on with the good, normal, and hopefully cheerful business of life — the antics of clowns like Putin, Obama, and their international counterparts seem like so much juvenile posturing. They’ve never outgrown their post-pubescent need to declare to the world, “I have the biggest (insert name of favorite male anatomical component), and don’t you forget it!”

    How CAN we forget it, when it’s relentlessly shoved in our faces day after day? The morons in the media are only too happy to pander to the lowest common denominator and give the political circus all the free advertising it wants. Politics and the mass-media—one integrity-free cesspool feeding another. (sigh)

    I do wonder whether there will ever come a time when the vast majority of the human species has simply had enough of this kind of adolescent drama, grows the hell up, and realizes that meeting the ideological need for security with a political supply of tyranny doesn’t work.

    Perhaps if no one bought their political snake oil, they’d all have to find honest jobs that actually produce some positive value, rather than selling themselves as saviors who will protect us from the bad guys…who inevitably turn out to be them.

  8. Jonathan da silva

    The blood on his hands piece says UK handed over details of its informants to US where 10s 1000s of contractors like Snowden could access it.

    News International of course handed over its journalists and sources to the police.

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