In a letter to a former senator released this week, NSA leaker Edward Snowden swore that there is no way the Russian government can get any sensitive information from him -- despite the fact that he has been camped out in the Moscow airport for the past few weeks, carrying four laptops that he had supposedly used to lift the NSA's secrets.
"No intelligence service -- not even our own -- has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect," Snowden wrote to former Senator Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire in an email published by the Guardian. "You may rest easy knowing [that] I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture."
At first glance, the message seems like more braggadocio from a man who has appeared to lay it on thick before, from his self-proclaimed ability to bug the president to his claims of being able to "shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon." It's widely assumed in both the business and the intelligence communities that any electronics brought into Moscow (or Hong Kong, for that matter) are going to be compromised by the country's spy agency. Perhaps he is underestimating the technical prowess of the Russian security services; perhaps he is overestimating his own.
But there's a third possibility: that Snowden is telling the truth. That there really is no way for him to give up any more information, other than the stuff in his head. Snowden may have left the United States with "four computers that enabled him to gain access to some of the U.S. government's most highly-classified secrets," as the Guardian put it. But he may not have those secrets now. The laptops could very well be empty -- and the secrets could be somewhere else.
Ever since Snowden's leaks began to appear in the press, Washington has been debating whether the former systems administrator is a whistleblower or some sort of spy. The latter position appeared to be radically strengthened when Snowden appeared in Hong Kong (where, presumably, the Chinese could get access to his laptops) and then in Moscow. Even if he didn't willfully cooperate with the governments there, they would drain his laptops of every last file. If those files were encrypted, that might slow things down -- but eventually, the secrets would be theirs.
The interpretation relies on Snowden, a veteran of a host of American intelligence agencies, being completely oblivious to Russia and China's well-known capacities to hack - or planning from the start to be an agent of a foreign power. Neither seems likely. Spies don't ask for asylum in a couple dozen countries. And former counterintelligence specialists -- even ones as young and unusual as Snowden -- aren't that out to lunch. As Snowden told Humphrey, "one of my specializations was to teach our people at DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] how to keep such information from being compromised even in the highest threat counter-intelligence environments [like] China."
Of course, the best way to keep that information from being compromised is not to have it at all.