The Sunday Times reportsthat Russia and China de-encrypted files stolen by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to pull officers out of live operations in hostile countries.
“Western intelligence agencies say they have been forced into the rescue operations after Moscow gained access to more than [1 million] classified files,” The Sunday Times, citing senior UK officials, reports.
A senior UK government source told the BBC that China and Russia “have information” that led to agents being moved, adding there was “no evidence” any officers had been harmed. The source added that the information included “knowledge of how we operate” and had obstructed the UK from getting “vital information.”
If the reports are true, then Snowden has some explaining to do — especially given that he has repeatedly said that Russia and China could not have possibly received documents.
Snowden told former US Senator Gordon Humphrey in July 2013 that “no intelligence service – not even our own – has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect. … I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”
The 31-year-old told James Risen of The New York Times in October 2013 that there was “a zero per cent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents.”
Risen also reported, citing an encrypted chat with Snowden, that the former CIA technician “gave all of the classified documents he had obtained to journalists he met in Hong Kong.” (ACLU lawyer and Snowden legal adviser Ben Wizner subsequently told me that the report was inaccurate.)
Snowden would later tell NBC that he “destroyed” all documents in his possession before he spoke with the Russians in Hong Kong.
“The best way to make sure that for example the Russians can’t break my fingers and — and compromise information or — or hit me with a bag of money until I give them something was not to have it at all,” he told Brian Williams of NBC in Moscow in May 2014. “And the way to do that was by destroying the material that I was holding before I transited through Russia.”
Snowden allegedly stole up to 1.77 million NSA documents while working at two consecutive jobs for US government contractors in Hawaii between March 2012 and May 2013.
The US government believes Snowden gave about 200,000 “tier 1 and 2” documents detailing the NSA’s global surveillance apparatus to American journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in June 2013.
The US also believes that Snowden also took up to 1.5 million “tier 3” documents, including 900,000 Department of Defence files and documents detailing NSA offensive cyber operations, the whereabouts of which are largely unknown.
Snowden flew to Hong Kong on May 20, 2013. After staying at an unknown location, Snowden reportedly checked into the Mira Hotel on June 1 and subsequently met with Poitras, Greenwald, and the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill.
Two days after checking out of the Mira Hotel on June 10, Snowden showed The South China Morning Post (SCMP) an unknown number of documents revealing “operational details of specific [NSA] attacks on [Chinese] computers, including internet protocol (IP) addresses, dates of attacks, and whether a computer was still being monitored remotely.”
Snowden told Lana Lam of SCMP that he possessed more NSA intel.
“If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published.”
Eleven days later, advised by WikiLeaks, Snowden got on a plane to Moscow.
‘Very poor information security practice’
If the UK government is correct that Russia and China obtained information from Snowden, then it’s possible that data came from journalists working with Snowden.
The cache given to Poitras and Greenwald allegedly included 58,000 “highly classified UK intelligence documents,” The Telegraph reported in August after the UK government detained David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, as he travelled through London’s Heathrow Airport.
Authorities confiscated electronic devices in which classified documents were stored and a password.
“Much of the material is encrypted. However, among the unencrypted documents … was a piece of paper that included the password for decrypting one of the encrypted files on the external hard drive recovered from the claimant,” the UK government stated to the court.
“The fact that … the claimant was carrying on his person a handwritten piece of paper containing the password for one of the encrypted files … is a sign of very poor information security practice.”
In any case, the UK government alleges that Moscow gained access to more than 1 million classified files.
So if the Sunday Times and BBC reports are accurate, Snowden statement that there was “a zero per cent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents” requires serious clarification.
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