Report: Britain Cancels Intel Operations, Pulls Agents After Russia and China Crack Snowden Files

AP Photo/dpa,Wolfgang Kumm
AP Photo/dpa,Wolfgang Kumm

The Sunday Times of London published a report on Sunday, saying British intelligence has cancelled “live operations in hostile countries” and recalled its agents after Russia and China successfully cracked over a million classified files stolen by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

In fact, the report says Western intelligence agencies have been forced to conduct “rescue operations” to recover their compromised agents. Reuters adds that American spies might have been compromised in a similar manner.

“One senior Home Office official accused Snowden of having ‘blood on his hands’, although Downing Street said there was ‘no evidence of anyone being harmed,'” the Sunday Times writes.

The damage to British intelligence operations is nevertheless described as significant, with the Russians and Chinese now in possession of important “knowledge of how we operate,” while the UK has been prevented from obtaining “vital information,” according to a government source quoted by the BBC.

As BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera observes, Snowden has repeatedly given assurances that the files he appropriated could not possibly be cracked by foreign intelligence agencies, but British intelligence nevertheless has “worked on the assumption that Russian and Chinese spies might have access to his full cache of secrets.”

“Snowden himself would not have had access though to any kind of database of MI6 agents but the fear might have been that by piecing together any secrets on how such agents communicate that were in the files, the Russians and Chinese might have been able to identify them,” Corera speculates.

He also points out that the government’s official statements in response to the Sunday Times story generally fall into the realm of “no comment” and “refuse to confirm or deny,” leaving it open to question exactly how much of Snowden’s information has been accessed by the Russians and Chinese.

The UK Guardian sees pressure mounting against the British government to respond with something more concrete. The Guardian quotes privacy campaigners suggesting that the Sunday Times piece might be a “scare story” pushed out in advance of debate over a major surveillance reform bill in the fall, and noting the report “asks more questions than it answers.”

A report strongly critical of the UK’s surveillance policies was just delivered to Prime Minister David Cameron; some suspect the story about Snowden’s secrets falling into Russian and Chinese hands might have been leaked in response.

“Last week, David Anderson’s thoughtful report called for urgent reform of snooping laws. That would not have been possible without Snowden’s revelations,” Shami Chakrabarti, director of a British civil-liberties advocacy group called Liberty told the Guardian.  “Days later, an ‘unnamed Home Office source’ is accusing him of having blood on his hands. The timing of this exclusive story from the securocrats seems extremely convenient.”

Unsurprisingly, Edward Snowden’s media partner Glenn Greenwald did not think highly of the Sunday Times scoop. He said that it was pushed into the media by interested parties in the British intelligence establishment to influence the debate over surveillance reform.

“The entire report is a self-negating joke,” Greenwald sneered at The Intercept.  “It reads like a parody I might quickly whip up in order to illustrate the core sickness of western journalism.”

Greenwald criticized the Sunday Times article for relating unsupported allegations and speculations about the Snowden file from anonymous government officials, without quoting any skeptics or seeking contrary information. The bulk of his post is an extended rant about how easily American and British media can be manipulated by orchestrated anonymous leaks, going all the way back to the Pentagon Papers in the Seventies.

The rest of it consists of passionate assertions that Edward Snowden’s claims about how many documents he took, and how many of them he destroyed, must be believed implicitly — ergo, the Russians and Chinese cannot have hacked into any sensitive data pertaining to U.S. and British intelligence practices, because Snowden says he destroyed all of that material.

In a world where implicit trust is hard to come by, no one’s word should be taken as gospel, and even ostensibly brilliant people have been making a string of catastrophic mistakes, it is probably best to be concerned about both the substance of the Sunday Times report and its provenance. Demanding hard facts from the government about a story in which so many of the hard facts must remain classified is a tricky business… and, knowing that, government sources face considerable temptation to release speculative leaks that cannot be verified, for the sort of media manipulation Greenwald denounces.

In this case, if the British or American intelligence communities believe those very busy Russian and Chinese hackers have distilled vital intel from Snowden’s materials, they will need to present a convincing case to the relevant committees of their legislatures… and, in the U.S. case, perhaps a court of law, if the government ever gets a chance to put Snowden on trial.