A report in The Independent yesterday included this line in reference to a GCHQ project (the construction of a major surveillance center in the Middle East):
Information about the project was contained in 50,000 GCHQ documents that Mr Snowden downloaded during 2012.
Since Edward Snowden issued a statement making it clear that he was not a source for this report, the claim that he obtained 50,000 GCHQ documents (a claim that has not previously been reported) begs two questions:
1. Who is the source of this claim?
2. Is the claim factually correct?
Given that the report says nothing whatsoever about its sourcing, but does include, “The Government claims…,” we can at least conclude that The Independent‘s reporters were speaking to British government officials, most likely inside GCHQ itself.
So how would GCHQ “know” that Snowden downloaded 50,000 GCHQ documents? It’s possible that David Miranda was carrying the whole trove of leaked documents on the laptop that was confiscated from him by British police when he detained in Heathrow airport last weekend. But I’m inclined to doubt that these documents are now being carried around anywhere by anyone unless that is absolutely necessary.
Back in July, Bloomberg reported that NSA chief Keith Alexander “said the NSA has determined which files Snowden took and said they amounted to a lot of information, though he wouldn’t say how much.”
So, the NSA must have informed GCHQ. Right? Not so fast.
The Associated Press now reports:
The U.S. government’s efforts to determine which highly classified materials leaker Edward Snowden took from the National Security Agency have been frustrated by Snowden’s sophisticated efforts to cover his digital trail by deleting or bypassing electronic logs, government officials told The Associated Press. Such logs would have showed what information Snowden viewed or downloaded.
The government’s forensic investigation is wrestling with Snowden’s apparent ability to defeat safeguards established to monitor and deter people looking at information without proper permission, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the sensitive developments publicly.
And those 50,000 documents? That’s probably GCHQ fishing for information, feeding a line to a journalist who doesn’t care too much whether it’s true, and then waiting to see whether Glenn Greenwald or Snowden bites the bait and divulges more information about what documents did or did not get leaked.