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‘We Just Publish What We Believe to Be the Position of the British Government’

That's how Tom Harper, the home affairs correspondent for the <i>Sunday Times</i>, describes his latest story about the fallout of the Snowden revelations.

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There are times when a post on Vine, the 6-second video sharing service, can be elevated to an art form. Watch and listen, for example, to Tom Harper, the home affairs correspondent for the Sunday Times, defend his reporting that China and Russia have cracked the archive of secret files leaked to journalists by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and that the United Kingdom has had to pull agents from the field as a result:

Harper made that statement during a CNN interview during which he was pressed on why British authorities believe that their Chinese and Russian counterparts have accessed the files. It was an ugly defense for what was always going to be a thinly-sourced story. Since the Snowden story first broke two years ago, press reporting about his revelations have been riddled with claims by various officials — both named and not — claiming that the leak had undermined vital intelligence powers and cost lives. These reports share a common characteristic: a lack of hard evidence.

That doesn’t mean that all claims that Snowden undermined the powers of Western intelligence agencies are false. After all, that was arguably the intent of his leaks in the first place — to lessen the ability of such agencies to collect information on the world’s citizens. But the argument made by Snowden and his defenders has always been that those leaks were calibrated and carefully selected so as to focus on the privacy-infringing aspects of Western intelligence collection, and not run of the mill nation-state espionage.

To be sure, other press reports based on the Snowden documents have exposed some of the NSA’s most closely guarded secrets that are intrusive but aren’t necessarily tools for mass surveillance. They include techniques used by the NSA to breach the “air gap,” or access computer devices that are kept physically separate from the Internet in order to prevent them from being hacked. Other reports have detailed how the NSA installs backdoors on security equipment in order to get around firewalls.

But Harper’s story is hard to read as anything but a piece of blatant spin-doctoring by the British government, whose NSA-equivalent, GCHQ, features heavily in the Snowden documents. In a single sentence, a Home Office source claims that Snowden has “blood on his hands,” only to be contradicted by a Downing Street source saying there’s “no evidence of anyone being harmed.” Hard to square those two statements. And since publication, the Times has quietly removed the claim that David Miranda, journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, met with Snowden in Moscow, before he was detained in London en route to Brazil with documents in tow. The article never explains how Russia and China got access to the Snowden files.

In the work of Harper, it’s hard not to see shades of Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter who wrote extensively about the George W. Bush administration’s belief that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Like Harper, Miller later defended her work by arguing that she was writing about what the Bush administration believed. Because in the world of intelligence it’s extremely difficult to gain confirmation, her reporting became overly reliant on the White House’s claims and failed to realize that the administration had convinced itself of a total falsehood.

Perhaps segments of the British government really believe that Snowden has “blood on his hands.” But as in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there’s no smoking gun to prove the case.

Photo credit: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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