July 30, 2013

Edward Snowden (Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras/The Guardian Newspaper)

The notion that former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and world-famous leaker Edward Snowden somehow allowed Chinese officials to suck all kinds of information from his laptops got another boost this afternoon on MSNBC. Host Andrea Mitchell, in her afternoon show, interviewed Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) about national security and the politics of leaking. She asked Wyden this long-winded question about Snowden:

Couldn’t he have gone, if not to the IG, couldn’t he have gone to you? Yes, it would have been career-ending but he knew he was blowing up his career anyway. But couldn’t he have sought protection from you and stayed within the United States, rather than going to China, letting them get access, presumably, to his laptops? Going to Russia and having all this stuff, really damaging stuff about what we do to China and, you know, what we do to Russia get out there so quickly.

To Mitchell’s credit, she didn’t state straight-up that Chinese authorities had raided Snowden’s laptops. In that respect, her speculation resembled the sort of speculation featured in a June 23 New York Times story on the matter. It states, in part:

Two Western intelligence experts, who worked for major government spy agencies, said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong, and that he said were with him during his stay at a Hong Kong hotel. If that were the case, they said, China would no longer need or want to have Mr. Snowden remain in Hong Kong.

Asked today whether there has ever been any grounds for the speculation of Mitchell and these “two Western intelligence experts,” Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, the prime authority on things Snowden, responded: “No: none. This all came from two anonymous experts quoted by the NYT that explicitly speculated that it ‘may’ have happened. I interviewed Snowden and he vehemently denied it.” The Post prefaced such speculation with clear signposts:

U.S. officials said their assumption is that China and Russia have copied the materials that Snowden took from classified U.S. networks but that they had no way to confirm those countries had done so.

“That stuff is gone,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia. “I guarantee the Chinese intelligence service got their hands on that right away. If they imaged the hard drives and then returned them to him, well, then the Russians have that stuff now.”

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan considered her paper’s suggestion significant enough to write a posting on the matter, which included a defense by foreign editor Joseph Kahn. He said that the article made clear what these folks “believed, not that they were told.”

True, technically. But the passage provides expert testimony on the dangers of expert testimony. The problem here is that these folks were presumed to be so knowledgeable that their input was accorded a treatment bordering on fact — fact for which convincing evidence hasn’t yet been produced, according to Greenwald. Snowden has denied that either Russia or China had drained his laptops. The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone slapped the media for using anonymous sources to “amplify . . . the government’s arguments that [Snowden] damaged national security, without any accountability.”

There’s a semi-technical dimension to the laptop frenzy. It appears to assume that Snowden would, like, keep his best stuff on his hard drives. Greenwald on that topic: “The media obsession with how many laptops he has – as though there’s a correlation between number of laptops and quantity of documents he’s carrying – is grounded in staggering ignorance. It’s not 1986. Not only have floppy disks been invented, but so have CD-ROMs and now USB sticks. The number of laptops has to do with security measures for communicating. Nobody minimally sophisticated carries around sensitive documents on laptops. And Snowden is nothing if not extremely sophisticated in such matters.”

We’ll surely hear more about these machines and how foreign officials pounced upon them. Mitchell’s remarks, guarded though they were, prove that once speculation surfaces in a prominent outlet and takes a spin around the Internet, it’s virtually impossible to sweep up its residue.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.