Did Snowden tell Humphrey the truth?
In a letter to a former senator, NSA leaker Edward Snowden swore there is no way the Russian government can get any sensitive information from him – despite the fact that he is camped out in the Moscow airport, 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 New Hampshire senator Gordon Humphrey. “You may rest easy knowing that I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”
At first, the message seems like more braggadocio from a man who has appeared to lay it on thick before. It’s widely assumed in the business and the intelligence communities that any electronics brought into Moscow (or Hong Kong) will be compromised by the country’s spy agency. Perhaps he is underestimating the technical prowess of the Russian security services – or 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 debated 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 and then in Moscow. Even if he didn’t willfully cooperate with the governments there, they would drain his laptops of every last file.
The interpretation relies on Snowden being oblivious to Russia and China’s 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 multiple countries. And former counterintelligence pros aren’t that out to lunch. As Snowden told Humphrey, “one of my specializations was to teach our people at (the 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 he 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?
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 is 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 give?