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.
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".
So 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?
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?
In 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.
Great paragraph in the Sunday Times' splash shows up government hyperbole and nonsense pic.twitter.com/vZ3EbLeEXw
— Kevin Rawlinson (@KevinJRawlinson) June 14, 2015
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."
All 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?
- Five reasons the MI6 story is a lie - Craig Murray
- Questions about the Sunday Times Snowden story - Ryan Gallagher
- Snowden files 'read by Russia and China': five questions for UK government - The Guardian
- The Sunday Times' Snowden story is journalism at its worst - and filled with falsehoods - The Intercept
- Let me be clear – Edward Snowden is a hero - Shami Chakrabarti
- UK under pressure to respond to latest Edward Snowden claims - The Guardian.