[There was a video here]
Over the weekend, the Sunday Times published an article quoting British government sources claiming that China and Russia had hacked Edward Snowden’s NSA files, putting agents in danger. Where was the proof? Reporter Tom Harper appeared on CNN last night to explain: “Well, uh, I don’t know, to be honest with you.”
Harper’s co-authored Sunday bombshell, “British Spies Betrayed to Russians and Chinese,” asserted that the U.K.’s MI6 spy agency had had “to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries” because Chinese and Russian officials had uncovered their identities using Edward Snowden’s trove of NSA documents. As one British Home Office official told Harper and his colleagues, Snowden had “blood on his hands.” Over the weekend, tons of American commentators—liberal and conservative—took the Times’ ball and ran with it, eager to seize on it as proof that Snowden was a security-destroying, spy-killing snake in the grass.
What was the British government’s evidence? That’s what Harper went on TV to explain to CNN anchor George Howell early Monday morning London time. As you can see in the clip above, it did not go well. In fact, it ended up being perhaps the clearest vindication of Snowden’s work to date:
George Howell: How do senior officials at No. 10 Downing Street know these files were breached?
Tom Harper: Well, uh, I don’t know, to be honest with you, George. All we know is that this is effectively the official position of the British government…
Howell: How do they know what was in them if they were encrypted? Has the British government also gotten into these files?
Harper: Well. Um, I mean, the files came from America and the UK. So, uh, they may already have known for sometime what Snowden took. Again, that’s not something that we’re clear on, so we don’t go into that level of detail in the story. We just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment.
Howell: Your article asserts that it is not clear if the files were hacked or if Snowden gave these files over when he was in Hong Kong and Russia. So which is it?
Harper: Well, again, sorry to just repeat myself, George, but we don’t know so we haven’t written that in the paper. Um, you know, it could be, it could be another scenario. When you’re dealing with the world of intelligence there are so many unknowns and so many possibilities, it’s difficult to state anything with certainty…
Howell: So we’re just really hearing, you know, what the British government is saying at this point. The article mentions these MI6 agents. Were they directly under threat as a result of the information leaked, or was it just a precautionary measure?
Harper: Again, I’m afraid to disappoint you, we just don’t know…
Howell: So essentially you’re reporting what the government is saying, but as far as the evidence to substantiate it, you’re not really able to comment or to explain that at this point. Right?
Harper: No… obviously when you’re dealing with intelligence, you know, it’s the toughest nut to crack. And, um, unless you actually have leaked intelligence documents, like Snowden had, it’s very difficult to say anything with certainty.
So, to summarize: We have no proof that there was any harm, except what the British government has said; there’s no way to back up what they’ve said; if you want to know what’s going on in the intelligence world, well... you’ve gotta have a leak like Snowden’s.
Reactions to Harper’s interview from journalists and activists on Twitter were swift and near-unanimous.
Really bad CNN interview with guy who wrote that terrible Sunday Times story. Doesn't seem to know anything: http://t.co/sD7hc1HbGeJune 15, 2015
Sunday Times journalist to CNN: "We just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government" http://t.co/ifqIOoTPZ2June 15, 2015
Author of Sunday Times Snowden story goes on CNN, is an utter embarrassment. http://t.co/b5z46PW5mbJune 15, 2015
This is agonizing. http://t.co/UEQRpsDUUUJune 15, 2015
Of course, none of this is evidence that Snowden’s pilfered NSA data hasn’t gotten cracked by “bad” countries with bad effects. But in the absence of evidence, the willingness of otherwise intelligent people to believe he’s all saint or all sinner leads them to make increasingly stupid choices, like arguing over a Sunday Times article by a poor, simple government stenographer.