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What If Snowden's Laptops Hold No Secrets?

The NSA leaker insists he'll never give classified data to the Russians. He may be telling the truth.

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.

The closer you look at the "four laptops" story, the more it seems like a ruse designed to keep spies in Washington and Moscow guessing. Why would Snowden need four computers to carry the NSA data when a portable hard drive the size of a hand can carry terabytes of information? Why would he hold on to such information when he knew he would be a target for Western intelligence agencies -- entities that "no one can meaningfully oppose," as Snowden put it. "If they want to get you, they'll get you in time." Sure, the data could be a bargaining chip in a negotiation for political asylum. But what good is a bargaining chip, if it can be snatched from your hands?

The smarter play would be to give someone else that leverage -- to let one of Snowden's interlocutors, like Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras, hold on to the data. Or to split it up among a dozen different players. Snowden's team says they've already engineered a kind of digital dead man's switch, which can release a torrent of sensitive information in case the United States engages in "extremely rogue behavior," as Greenwald puts it. The metaphorical switch is designed to be flipped in Snowden's absence, not his presence. 

In a sane world, the contents of Snowden's laptops would have legal ramifications. It's a more serious violation of the Espionage Act to deliver classified information into the hands of a foreign power than it is to simply make off with secrets that could be used to hurt the U.S. (One is punishable by death, the other by 10 years in prison.) But this world isn't always sane. On Thursday, a military judge allowed Wikileaker Bradley Manning to be charged with "aiding the enemy," since Osama bin Laden might have read one of the documents he disclosed on a news site. Whatever is on Snowden's computers, he's likely to face harsh punishment if he ever returns to the United States.

But there could be consequences in the way Snowden -- and future leakers -- are perceived, depending on whether his laptops are empty or full. Past U.S. government whistleblowers have already worried publicly that Snowden could damage the cause of tomorrow's crop -- allowing them to be branded them as traitors because Snowden supposedly put American secrets in Vladimir Putin's hands. What if he had no more secrets to digitally spill?

GUARDIAN/GLENN GREENWALD/LAURA POITRAS

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