(updated below)

Western journalists claim that the big lesson they learned from their key role in selling the Iraq War to the public is that it’s hideous, corrupt and often dangerous journalism to give anonymity to government officials to let them propagandize the public, then uncritically accept those anonymously voiced claims as Truth. But they’ve learned no such lesson. That tactic continues to be the staple of how major U.S. and British media outlets “report,” especially in the national security area. And journalists who read such reports continue to treat self-serving decrees by unnamed, unseen officials — laundered through their media — as gospel, no matter how dubious are the claims or factually false is the reporting.

We now have one of the purest examples of this dynamic. Last night, the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times published their lead front-page Sunday article, headlined “British Spies Betrayed to Russians and Chinese.” Just as the conventional media narrative was shifting to pro-Snowden sentiment in the wake of a key court ruling and a new surveillance law, the article (behind a paywall: full text here) claims in the first paragraph that these two adversaries “have cracked the top-secret cache of files stolen by the fugitive U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries, according to senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services.” It continues:

Western intelligence agencies say they have been forced into the rescue operations after Moscow gained access to more than 1m classified files held by the former American security contractor, who fled to seek protection from Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, after mounting one of the largest leaks in U.S. history.

Senior government sources confirmed that China had also cracked the encrypted documents, which contain details of secret intelligence techniques and information that could allow British and American spies to be identified.

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.”

Aside from the serious retraction-worthy fabrications on which this article depends — more on those in a minute — the entire report is a self-negating joke. It reads like a parody I might quickly whip up in order to illustrate the core sickness of Western journalism.

Unless he cooked an extra-juicy steak, how does Snowden “have blood on his hands” if there is “no evidence of anyone being harmed?” As one observer put it last night in describing the government instructions these Sunday Times journalists appear to have obeyed: “There’s no evidence anyone’s been harmed but we’d like the phrase ‘blood on his hands’ somewhere in the piece.”

The whole article does literally nothing other than quote anonymous British officials. It gives voice to banal but inflammatory accusations that are made about every whistleblower from Daniel Ellsberg to Chelsea Manning. It offers zero evidence or confirmation for any of its claims. The “journalists” who wrote it neither questioned any of the official assertions nor even quoted anyone who denies them. It’s pure stenography of the worst kind: some government officials whispered these inflammatory claims in our ears and told us to print them, but not reveal who they are, and we’re obeying. Breaking!

Stephen Colbert captured this exact pathology with untoppable precision in his 2006 White House Correspondents speech, when he mocked American journalism to the faces of those who practice it:

But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works.The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!

The Sunday Times article is even worse because it protects the officials they’re serving with anonymity. The beauty of this tactic is that the accusations can’t be challenged. The official accusers are being hidden by the journalists so nobody can confront them or hold them accountable when it turns out to be false. The evidence can’t be analyzed or dissected because there literally is none: they just make the accusation and, because they’re state officials, their media servants will publish it with no evidence needed. And as is always true, there is no way to prove the negative. It’s like being smeared by a ghost with a substance that you can’t touch.

This is the very opposite of journalism. Ponder how dumb someone has to be at this point to read an anonymous government accusation, made with zero evidence, and accept it as true.

But it works. Other news agencies mindlessly repeated the Sunday Times claims far and wide. I watched last night as American and British journalists of all kinds reacted to the report on Twitter: by questioning none of it. They did the opposite: they immediately assumed it to be true, then spent hours engaged in somber, self-serious discussions with one another over what the geopolitical implications are, how the breach happened, what it means for Snowden, etc. This is the formula that shapes their brains: anonymous self-serving government assertions = Truth. 

By definition, authoritarians reflexively believe official claims — no matter how dubious or obviously self-serving, even when made while hiding behind anonymity — because that’s how their submission functions. Journalists who practice this sort of primitive reporting — I uncritically print what government officials tell me, and give them anonymity so they have no accountability for any of it — do so out of a similar authoritarianism, or uber-nationalism, or laziness, or careerism. Whatever the motives, the results are the same: government officials know they can propagandize the public at any time because subservient journalists will give them anonymity to do so and will uncritically disseminate and accept their claims.

At this point, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that journalists want it this way. It’s impossible that they don’t know better. The exact kinds of accusations laundered in the Sunday Times today are made — and then disproven — in every case where someone leaks unflattering information about government officials.

In the early 1970s, Nixon officials such as John Ehrlichman and Henry Kissinger planted accusations in the U.S. media that Daniel Ellsberg had secretly given the Pentagon Papers and other key documents to the Soviet Union; everyone now knows this was a lie, but at the time, American journalists repeated it constantly, helping to smear Ellsberg. That’s why Ellsberg has constantly defended Snowden and Chelsea Manning from the start: because the same tactics were used to smear him.

The same thing happened with Chelsea Manning. When WikiLeaks first began publishing the Afghan War logs, U.S. officials screamed that they — all together now — had “blood on their hands.” But when some journalists decided to scrutinize rather than mindlessly repeat the official accusation (i.e. some decided to do journalism), they found it was a fabrication.

Writing under the headline “US officials privately say WikiLeaks damage limited,” Reuters’ Mark Hosenball reported that “internal U.S. government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration’s public statements to the contrary.”

An AP report was headlined “AP review finds no WikiLeaks sources threatened,” and explained that “an Associated Press review of those sources raises doubts about the scope of the danger posed by WikiLeaks’ disclosures and the Obama administration’s angry claims, going back more than a year, that the revelations are life-threatening.” Months earlier, McClatchy’s Nancy Youssef wrote an article headlined “Officials may be overstating the dangers from WikiLeaks,” and she noted that “despite similar warnings ahead of the previous two massive releases of classified U.S. intelligence reports by the website, U.S. officials concede that they have no evidence to date that the documents led to anyone’s death.”

Now we have exactly the same thing here. There’s an anonymously made claim that Russia and China “cracked the top-secret cache of files” from Snowden’s, but there is literally zero evidence for that claim. These hidden officials also claim that American and British agents were unmasked and had to be rescued, but not a single one is identified. There is speculation that Russia and China learned things from obtaining the Snowden files, but how could these officials possibly know that, particularly since other government officials are constantly accusing both countries of successfully hacking sensitive government databases?

What kind of person would read evidence-free accusations of this sort from anonymous government officials — designed to smear a whistleblower they hate — and believe them? That’s a particularly compelling question given that Vice’s Jason Leopold just last week obtained and published previously secret documents revealing a coordinated smear campaign in Washington to malign Snowden. Describing those documents, he reported: “A bipartisan group of Washington lawmakers solicited details from Pentagon officials that they could use to ‘damage’ former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s ‘credibility in the press and the court of public opinion.’”

Manifestly then, the “journalism” in this Sunday Times article is as shoddy and unreliable as it gets. Worse, its key accusations depend on retraction-level lies.

The government accusers behind this story have a big obstacle to overcome: namely, Snowden has said unequivocally that when he left Hong Kong, he took no files with him, having given them to the journalists with whom he worked, and then destroying his copy precisely so that it wouldn’t be vulnerable as he traveled. How, then, could Russia have obtained Snowden’s files as the story claims — “his documents were encrypted but they weren’t completely secure ” — if he did not even have physical possession of them?

The only way this smear works is if they claim Snowden lied, and that he did in fact have files with him after he left Hong Kong. The Sunday Times journalists thus include a paragraph that is designed to prove Snowden lied about this, that he did possess these files while living in Moscow:

It is not clear whether Russia and China stole Snowden’s data, or whether he voluntarily handed over his secret documents in order to remain at liberty in Hong Kong and Moscow.

David Miranda, the boyfriend of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was seized at Heathrow in 2013 in possession of 58,000 “highly classified” intelligence documents after visiting Snowden in Moscow.

What’s the problem with that Sunday Times passage? It’s an utter lie. David did not visit Snowden in Moscow before being detained. As of the time he was detained in Heathrow, David had never been to Moscow and had never met Snowden. The only city David visited on that trip before being detained was Berlin, where he stayed in the apartment of Laura Poitras.

The Sunday Times “journalists” printed an outright fabrication in order to support their key point: that Snowden had files with him in Moscow. This is the only “fact” included in their story that suggests Snowden had files with him when he left Hong Kong, and it’s completely, demonstrably false (and just by the way: it’s 2015, not 1971, so referring to gay men in a 10-year spousal relationship with the belittling term “boyfriends” is just gross).

Then there’s the Sunday Times claim that “Snowden, a former contractor at the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA), downloaded 1.7m secret documents from western intelligence agencies in 2013.” Even the NSA admits this claim is a lie. The NSA has repeatedly said that it has no idea how many documents Snowden downloaded and has no way to find out. As the NSA itself admits, the 1.7 million number is not the number the NSA claims Snowden downloaded — they admit they don’t and can’t know that number — but merely the amount of documents he interacted with in his years of working at NSA. Here’s then-NSA chief Keith Alexander explaining exactly that in a 2014 interview with the Australian Financial Review:

AFR: Can you now quantify the number of documents [Snowden] stole?

Gen. Alexander: Well, I don’t think anybody really knows what he actually took with him, because the way he did it, we don’t have an accurate way of counting. What we do have an accurate way of counting is what he touched, what he may have downloaded, and that was more than a million documents.

Let’s repeat that: “I don’t think anybody really knows what he actually took with him, because the way he did it, we don’t have an accurate way of counting.” Yet someone whispered to the Sunday Times reporters that Snowden downloaded 1.7 million documents, so like the liars and propagandists that they are, they mindlessly printed it as fact. That’s what this whole article is.

Then there’s the claim that the Russian and Chinese governments learned the names of covert agents by cracking the Snowden file, “forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries.” This appears quite clearly to be a fabrication by the Sunday Times for purposes of sensationalism, because if you read the actual anonymous quotes they include, not even the anonymous officials claim that Russia and China hacked the entire archive, instead offering only vague assertions that Russia and China “have information.”

Beyond that, how could these hidden British officials possibly know that China and Russia learned things from the Snowden files as opposed to all the other hacking and spying those countries do? Moreover, as pointed out last night by my colleague Ryan Gallagher — who has worked for well over a year with the full Snowden archive — “I’ve reviewed the Snowden documents and I’ve never seen anything in there naming active MI6 agents.” He also said: “I’ve seen nothing in the region of 1m documents in the Snowden archive, so I don’t know where that number has come from.”

Finally, none of what’s in the Sunday Times is remotely new. U.S. and U.K. government officials and their favorite journalists have tried for two years to smear Snowden with these same claims. In June 2013, the New York Times gave anonymity to “two Western intelligence experts, who worked for major government spy agencies” who “said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong.” The NYT’s Public Editor chided the paper for printing that garbage, and as I reported in my book, then-editor-in-chief Jill Abramson told The Guardian’s Janine Gibson that they should not have printed that, calling it “irresponsible.” (And that’s to say nothing of the woefully ignorant notion that Snowden — or anyone else these days — stores massive amounts of data on “four laptops” as opposed to tiny thumb drives).

The GOP’s right-wing extremist Congressman Mike Rogers constantly did the same thing. He once announced with no evidence that “Snowden is working with Russia” — a claim even former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell denies — and also argued that Snowden should “be charged with murder” for causing unknown deaths. My personal favorite example of this genre of reckless, desperate smears is the op-ed that the Wall Street Journal published in May 2014, by neocon Edward Jay Epstein, which had this still-hilarious paragraph:

A former member of President Obama’s cabinet went even further, suggesting to me off the record in March this year that there are only three possible explanations for the Snowden heist: 1) It was a Russian espionage operation; 2) It was a Chinese espionage operation, or 3) It was a joint Sino-Russian operation.

It must be one of those, an anonymous official told me! It must be! Either Russia did it. Or China did it. Or they did it together! That is American journalism.

The Sunday Times today merely recycled the same evidence-free smears that have been used by government officials for years — not only against Snowden, but all whistleblowers — and added a dose of sensationalism and then baked it with demonstrable lies. That’s just how Western journalism works, and it’s the opposite of surprising. But what is surprising, and grotesque, is how many people (including other journalists) continue to be so plagued by some combination of stupidity and gullibility, so that no matter how many times this trick is revealed, they keep falling for it. If some anonymous government officials said it, and journalists repeat it while hiding who they are, I guess it must be true. 


UPDATE: The Sunday Times has now quietly deleted one of the central, glaring lies in its story: that David Miranda had just met with Snowden in Moscow when he was detained at Heathrow carrying classified documents. By “quietly deleted,” I mean just that: they just removed it from their story without any indication or note to their readers that they’ve done so (though it remains in the print edition and thus requires a retraction). That’s indicative of the standard of “journalism” for the article itself. Multiple other falsehoods, and all sorts of shoddy journalistic practices, remain thus far unchanged.

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images