Is Snowden working for the Russians?

 


(AP Photo/The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras)

“There’s a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow.”

–Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Jan. 20, 2014, using an acronym for the Federal Security Service that succeeded the K.G.B.

Rep. Mike Rogers sparked headlines around the world when he went on the Sunday news shows and strongly suggested that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden had help from the Russians when he obtained top-secret documents.

Rogers left himself lots of wiggle room—“I think,” “I believe,” “not a coincidence,” “questions we have to answer”—but the import of his statements is clear: Snowden had help from the Russians, both to get the documents and to escape American authorities. In particular, Rogers appears to be drawing on a still-classified report by the Defense Intelligence Agency that assessed some of the military damage to the United States.

Does this make much sense?

The Facts

The Fact Checker does not have access to the DIA report, so we cannot truly assess the accuracy of the research. (Just because information is contained in an intelligence report does not make it true.) In a joint statement in early January, Rogers and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the report showed “much of the information stolen by Snowden is related to current U.S. military operations.”

Rogers does have some support for his claim from at least one other lawmaker who apparently has read the report.

On ABC’s “This Week,” for instance, Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said:

“I personally believe that he was cultivated by a foreign power to do what he did…. but I’ve been given all the evidence, I know Mike Rogers has access to, that I’ve seen, that I don’t think he was acting alone.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also appeared on Meet the Press and was more circumspect when asked about Rogers’s allegation that Snowden had help: “He may well have.  We don’t know at this stage.”

We should also note that this past week was not the first time that Rogers has suggested Snowden had help from a third party. In a December interview with Fox News, Rogers said Snowden “did some things capability-wise that was beyond his capabilities.” What is new is the stronger allegation about Russia, meaning Rogers presumably has access to new information.

“The chairman has nothing more to add to his comments at this point,” said committee spokeswoman Susan Phalen. “The investigation is ongoing.”

Snowden, who is currently in Russia, has consistently denied he acted at the behest of any foreign government or shared documents with foreign governments—or even that he took documents with him to Russia.  In an interview with The New Yorker after Rogers made his remarks, Snowden insisted that he “clearly and unambiguously acted alone, with no assistance from anyone, much less a government.”

A report in The New York Times said investigators’ suspicions had been raised concerning changes in information obtained by Snowden that it said was stored in an Internet cloud, suggesting perhaps Russian agents now had access to it.

On the surface, that concern involves a couple of leaps of logic, but maybe it would be clearer in classified documents. Reuters had previously described the Internet cloud as a “doomsday” cache of files designed to be some sort of insurance policy against Snowden’s arrest.

But before we get too caught up in speculation that seems straight out of a Jack Ryan thriller, let’s take a step back. Rogers and McCaul may have seen some interesting classified evidence, but there are also some hard questions they need to answer before they continue with the Russian spy theme.

If Snowden had been working with the Russians before he downloaded documents, why would he share information with reporters, go public and only then try to  escape to a friendly country?

In fact, why would Russia even permit its agent to go public in the first place? Good spy craft generally suggests it is better to keep secret your access to information. A spy within the NSA would have been a useful source for years, so why blow it on a big media splash?

Moreover, Snowden first tried to fly to Ecuador from Hong Kong, and ended up stuck in a Russian transit zone for five weeks. If he had been working with Russia, why wasn’t he treated better in the first place?

Some might argue that Snowden might be helping Russia now, and that’s why he was granted asylum. (German intelligence has pointed to FSB involvement, according to a German media report.) But that’s not what Rogers claimed. He suggested Russia got involved before Snowden downloaded the documents. But if that’s the case, one must also believe Snowden’s long odyssey was simply an elaborate ruse.

The Pinocchio Test

This is obviously a difficult issue to fact check, given the paucity of confirmed information. We are going to take the same approach here as we did with Susan Rice’s widely discussed comments on Benghazi.  We awarded her Pinocchios immediately after her statement on the grounds that the publicly available evidence did not match up with her talking points.

The same holds true here. Rogers may have access to information that is still secret, but then he should not hint or suggest something that, on its face, makes little sense. It is certainly valid to raise questions, but a public official should not hide behind the cloak of classification when making such serious allegations. Feinstein, by contrast, was careful not to make any claim, except that more information is needed.

We can’t go too hard on Rogers at this point, but we will keep an eye on this issue. The burden falls on the person making the allegation, and Rogers is under notice that he needs to produce more evidence to support such electrifying claims.

Two Pinocchios

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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