For almost four years, a cottage industry of media conspiracists has devoted itself to accusing Edward Snowden of being a spy for either Russia and/or China at the time he took and then leaked documents from the National Security Agency. There has never been any evidence presented to substantiate this accusation.
In lieu of evidence, the propagators of this accusation have relied upon the defining tactic of tawdry conspiracists everywhere: relentless repetition of rumor and innuendo based on alleged inconsistencies until it spreads far enough through the media ecosystem to take on the appearance of being credible. In this case, there was one particular fiction — about where Snowden spent his first 11 days after arriving in Hong Kong — which took on particular significance for this group.
They insist that Snowden, contrary to what he has always maintained, did not check into the Mira Hotel on May 21, 2013, the day after he arrived in Hong Kong. Instead, they assert, he checked-in only on June 1, which means Snowden has 11 “unaccounted-for” days from the time he arrived in Hong Kong until he met with journalists at the Mira in the beginning of June. They have repeatedly leveraged this Missing Eleven Days into the insinuation that Snowden used this time to work with his Russian and/or Chinese handlers in preparation for meeting the U.S. journalists in Hong Kong.
While such reckless conspiracy-mongering is often relegated to online fringes, this accusatory fable found its way to the nation’s mainstream journalistic venues: the Wall Street Journal, Slate, Yahoo News, Lawfare, Business Insider; these media conspiracists were subsequently joined by several former officials of the intelligence community now embedded in the pundit class in affirming this tale. These outlets have repeatedly laundered and thus sanctioned the tale of the Missing Eleven Days, despite its utter lack of any journalistic basis.
Most remarkably, these conspiracists were permitted by these media outlets to repeat this lie about Snowden’s Missing Eleven Days over and over, all in service of suggesting that he was acting as an agent of a foreign power, despite the fact that even top intelligence officials who loathe Snowden have repeatedly said that they do not believe — and have seen no evidence to suggest — that he worked with any foreign government, including Russia. Obama’s own acting CIA Director Michael Morell told the Daily Beast’s Shane Harris in 2015:
My own view on this question is that both Chinese and Russian intelligence officers undoubtedly pitched him — offering him millions of dollars to share the documents he had stolen and to answer any questions they had about the NSA and CIA. But my guess is that Snowden said, “No, thank you,” given his mind-set and his clear dislike for intelligence services of any stripe.
The NSA’s second-highest official at the time of the Snowden leak, Chris Inglis, was similarly clear that no such evidence exists:
But these media conspiracists have gotten away with this fable of the Missing Eleven Days in Hong Kong and similar tales because their core assertions were deliberately designed to be insusceptible to being affirmatively disproven. Because their accusatory story rests on claims of invisible and hidden events, they could not be exposed as frauds with definitive documentary evidence — until now.
Newly obtained documents conclusively prove that the central tale invented by these Snowden-accusing commentators is a wholesale fabrication. These documents negate the edifice on which this entire fiction has been based from the start.
The campaign to depict Snowden as a Russian or Chinese spy has centrally depended upon the accusation that he is lying about how he spent his first 11 days in Hong Kong. Snowden’s version of events has never changed from the very first interview we published with him at the Guardian: on May 20, 2013, he boarded a flight from Honolulu to Hong Kong, checked into the Mira Hotel on May 21 under his own name, and then stayed continuously in Room 1014 at the Mira as he waited for the arrival of the journalists with whom he was working, paying for the room with his own credit cards.
As the journalists working on the Snowden documents, Laura Poitras and I arrived in Hong Kong on June 2, and spent the next eight days working with Snowden in Room 1014 at the Mira. Snowden thus stayed continuously at the Mira from May 21, the day after he arrived Hong Kong, until June 10, when he left due to the media craze triggered by our Guardian article revealing his identity.
But this group of accusatory journalists has repeatedly accused Snowden of lying about this time-line. They insist that Snowden checked into the Mira Hotel for the first time only on June 1: eleven days after he claims he did. They have thus spent years discussing the significance of what they ominously refer to as “The Missing Eleven Days.” This sinister Missing Eleven Days has become key to the tale they have woven to prove Snowden is a spy.
But that claim is an outright lie, and always has been. Documents now provided by the Mira Hotel to Snowden’s lawyers in Hong Kong prove the truth of exactly what Snowden has always said: that he checked into the Mira Hotel on May 21 and stayed there, under his own name, continuously through June 10.
Snowden’s original reservation, made through booking.com, confirms that the check-in date was always May 21, and the reservation was originally scheduled for 10 nights (check-out on May 30). The hotel records confirm he arrived and checked-in on May 21, staying continually for the full reservation. Once that reservation ended, he extended it for one more day, then made another 10-day reservation through booking.com with a check-out date of June 10, and stayed continually through then, when he checked out.
These newly obtained documents (all of which are available here and here) thus conclusively prove that the accusatory fable repeated and circulated over and over in U.S. mainstream media outlets — that Snowden did not check into the Mira prior to June 1 and thus cannot account for the mysterious Missing Eleven Days in Hong Kong — is a falsehood.
Despite its utter falsity, it is hard to overstate how continually this lie was repeated in mainstream outlets until it metastasized into Truth among a certain set of journalists and pundits obsessed with the claim that Snowden worked for the Russians and/or Chinese governments. Editors at leading U.S. media outlets continually allowed this tale to be published even though there was never any evidence to suggest that Snowden was lying. It became their give-us-the-real-birth-certificate foundation for the conspiracy web about Snowden they have spent years spinning.
That Snowden checked into the Mira only on June 1 was first asserted by a Wall Street Journal article published on June 10, 2013 — the day after we first revealed Snowden’s identity in the Guardian. The article made this claim in passing, with no basis identified.
It did not remotely suggest that Snowden had lied: to the contrary, it seems to be a case where reporting on rapidly unfolding events sloppily but innocuously misstated what seemed at the time to be an ancillary fact: the date on which Snowden checked into the Mira Hotel. Alternatively, the reporter may have spoken with a clerk who looked only at Snowden’s most recently renewed reservation form (which began on June 1) rather than the first one Snowden signed upon checking in on May 21.
Either way, nobody ever tried to vest the WSJ’s misreporting about the check-in date with significance until a year later when the paper’s op-ed page writer, Edward Jay Epstein, seized on what he thought was a critical discrepancy to build a sprawling, accusatory conspiracy theory that he ultimately parlayed into a book, a central theme of which is that Snowden systematically lied about this key event. Epstein repeatedly cited this Missing Eleven Days to suggest that Snowden could have been in cahoots with a foreign government. The first time he implied this was in a June 29, 2014 WSJ column, when he made these claims:
From May 20, the day he landed, to May 31, according to a source familiar with the Defense Intelligence Agency report on the Snowden affair, U.S. investigative agencies have been unable to find any credit-card charges or hotel records indicating his whereabouts. …
Mr. Snowden would tell Mr. Greenwald on June 3 that he had been “holed up” in his room at the Mira Hotel from the time of his arrival in Hong Kong. But according to inquiries by Wall Street Journal reporter Te-Ping Chen, Mr. Snowden arrived there on June 1. I confirmed that date with the hotel’s employees. A hotel security guard told me that Mr. Snowden was not in the Mira during that late-May period and, when he did stay there, he used his own passport and credit card.
So where was Edward Snowden between May 20 and May 31?
Actual journalists — ones who are careful with and care about facts — fully recognized the baselessness of this key accusation. The New York Times’ reporter Charlie Savage, recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, wrote a devastating denunciation last month of Epstein’s book in the New York Review of Books, featuring the issue of the check-in date discrepancy in indicting Epstein’s conspiracy theories as hollow:
It is unfortunate that Epstein builds his imagined scenarios upon allegations that may not be real facts.
For example, Epstein gives sinister significance to the “fact” that Snowden arrived in Hong Kong eleven days before he checked into the hotel where he met the journalists, leaving his activities during that period a mystery. Snowden has insisted that he was in that hotel the whole time, waiting for the journalists to arrive. In one of his columns written in 2014, Epstein first claimed that there was an eleven-day mystery gap, citing his conversation with an unnamed hotel security guard. I am aware of no independent verification of this allegation. So as things stand, this “fact” appears to be vaporous.
In subsequent correspondence between Epstein and Savage, the New York Times reporter repeatedly points to the lack of any persuasive or substantive basis for Epstein’s Missing Eleven Days claim, while noting how central this claim has become to the accusatory herd that has assembled around this theory:
I remain unaware of any other place in the public record except Epstein’s work where this June 1 claim independently appears, ranging from numerous other news articles about Snowden’s time in Hong Kong to a September 2016 report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which — seeking to counter the premiere of Oliver Stone’s movie — scoured the government’s investigative file for material to portray Snowden as a liar.
Perhaps someday the Mira’s records will emerge into public view and we will have more solid information to evaluate this question. Either way, my central point remains unchanged: Epstein treated the check-in claim as a factual anchor for his insinuations about what Snowden might have been doing earlier, but at the time he wrote his book (and still today) the evidence for this claim was insufficient to establish it as a proven fact. This is part of a recurring pattern with his methodology.
Those Mira records have indeed now “emerged into public view,” and they prove what was clear all along: this whole theory was invented from whole cloth. As Savage argued: “wherever one falls in the spectrum of views about Edward Snowden’s actions, Edward Jay Epstein’s book about him is not credible because it indulges in speculation, treats questionable claims as established facts, and contains numerous inaccuracies about surveillance.”
Unfortunately, large parts of the U.S. media do not adhere to the basic standards of journalism Savage applied to these claims. Here, for instance, is Epstein spinning his tale on the podcast of Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes, who concluded the published podcast with people literally applauding Epstein:
This lie about the Missing Eleven Days was repeated so often, in so many venues, that chronicling them all is impossible. Flagging some of the most flagrant, typical offenders will thus have to suffice.
One of the most aggressive disseminators of this lie is the Yahoo News reporter Michael B. Kelley, formerly of Business Insider, who has spent years repeating and mainstreaming this Missing Eleven Days fable.
On July 20, 2014, Kelley wrote an article for Business Insider under the headline “There’s An 11-Day Hole In Snowden’s Story About Hong Kong.” It began this way:
Edward Snowden says that he wanted the U.S. to know where he was after he arrived in Hong Kong.
But U.S. authorities still don’t know what he did for the first 11 days after his arrival.
Kelley then added this sentence, in which he called a total falsehood a fact that had been “confirmed”: “But Edward Jay Epstein of The Wall Street Journal went to Hong Kong and confirmed that Snowden didn’t check into the Mira Hotel until June 1.” Illustrating the slimy insinuations constantly attached to this falsehood, Kelley ended his article this way:
“To answer the question in three words: I don’t know where he was for these 11 days,” Epstein said in an interview. “It’s very important because if we knew where he was, then we’d know who he went to see in Hong Kong.”
Strangely, no one seems to know — even though Snowden says he made it obvious.
Snowden did exactly this: “made it obvious” where he was in Hong Kong by checking into the Mira under his own name and using his own credit cards — precisely to prevent smear artists from retroactively insinuating that he must be a spy given his untraceable activities. Yet none of that stopped Epstein or Kelley from making the claim anyway.
Kelley, during his time at Business Insider, spent years claiming that Snowden lied about these eleven days. He was rewarded with a new job working for Yahoo News chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff. Kelley continued to spread this lie under the banner of Yahoo News.
On September 13, 2016, Yahoo News published what it called a “Fact Check”, written by Kelley, of Oliver Stone’s film “Snowden.” In its headline, Yahoo purported that the article documents “5 key parts of Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ biopic that don’t match reality.” Yahoo continued: “As with many Stone movies that are based on real events, the director took multiple liberties with the known facts. Here are five significant inaccuracies in ‘Snowden.'”
The second purported “inaccuracy” was titled “‘3 weeks’ at the Mira Hotel.” Citing Epstein, Kelley wrote: “Snowden didn’t check into the Mira Hotel until June 1, despite having arrived in the Chinese special-administrative region on May 20″ He then drew this conclusion: “If Snowden didn’t check into the Mira until June 1, he initially visited someone else in Hong Kong. Albert Ho, one of Snowden’s Hong Kong lawyers, referred to the unidentified person as Snowden’s ‘carer.’ This person’s crucial role in Snowden’s escape has never been explained.”
In sum, Kelley’s editors at both Business Insider and Yahoo News allowed him to repeatedly label as “confirmed” and “fact” and “known” a claim that was, in fact, a complete falsehood. He then used that fiction as the basis to construct an elaborate conspiracy that he has spent years pushing.
Then there’s Slate, which also purported to fact-check Stone’s film in the form of a column by its national security columnist Fred Kaplan, who also peddled this fable. “This much is definitely known,” proclaims Kaplan: Snowden “flew to Hong Kong on May 20 after telling his bosses that he needed to undergo tests for epilepsy, and on June 2 checked in at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong.” Kaplan began the review by announcing that “Stone’s Snowden is a bad movie, stuffed with myth,” but it is Kaplan’s own column which is guilty of that.
Then we have the Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss and former NSA employee John Schindler, who has recently become a favorite of liberals for his frenzied conspiracies about Russia. Here is how this duo took this utter lie, presented it as fact, and then used it to imply that Snowden was a Russian agent:
On June 11, 2016, Schindler wrote an article headlined “Edward Snowden is a Russian Agent.” He featured this Missing Eleven Days lie from the start: “Snowden left his job in Hawaii with the National Security Agency in May 2013 and appeared at Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel on June 1,” Schindler asserted. He continued: “significant questions remain. Where was Snowden from 21 to 31 May 2013? His whereabouts in that period are unknown.” In June, 2015, the former NSA operative similarly wrote in the Interpreter:
Where was Snowden during the last ten days of May 2013, after he left Hawaii but before he checked into Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel on June 1? It smacks of naïveté to think Beijing did not expect something in return for giving Snowden sanctuary en route to Moscow.
This factually false claim was so laundered and sanctioned by journalists and editors who were either malicious or reckless that it ended up getting repeated as fact even by those who meant well. In Gizmodo, for instance, Adam Clark Estes urged readers to see CitizenFour, but criticized the film for what he regarded as important omissions, such as: “Where exactly was Snowden for the 11 days before he checked into the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong?”
Upon release earlier this year of Epstein’s book — which was overwhelmingly denounced by reviewers as filled with unproven conspiracy theories — this claim about Snowden’s Missing Eleven Days was repeated as fact over and over. This mixed review of Epstein’s book in the San Francisco Chronicle was typical:
On May 18 [Snowden] flew to Hong Kong, where he hid at a still-unknown location for 11 days before meeting the journalists at the Mira Hotel. Epstein emphasizes how carefully Snowden arranged things, as if “pulling strings.” He insinuates there may have been a hidden hand.
The lie traveled internationally, as highlighted by this sentence in one of the few favorable reviews of Epstein’s book, from Brazil’s largest newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, written by Igor Gielow: “The fact that [Snowden] had disappeared for 11 days in Hong Kong, carrying secrets before divulging some of them to the press, remains a mystery.” Note that Snowden’s 11-day disappearance is now “a fact.”
All of this culminated with this falsehood being embraced by George W. Bush’s chief of the NSA and CIA, Gen. Michael Hayden. In an unsurprisingly gushing review of Epstein’s book, Hayden cites Epstein asking: “where was Snowden during those unaccounted-for first 11 days in Hong Kong”?
Where “Snowden was” during this time is exactly where he said, from the start, that he was: at the Mira Hotel (the only exception to his unbroken stay at the Mira was the very first day when Snowden arrived in Hong Kong, having made no advanced hotel reservations before leaving the U.S. so as to not alert authorities, and thus grabbed the first hotel he found online: the Icon Hotel. After staying there the first night, he moved to the Mira on May 21 and remained there for the next 21 days).
Yet again we find that the same U.S. media that loves to decry Fake News and mock “the Arab World” and “Russian-state media” and InfoWars for wallowing in baseless conspiracy theories routinely peddle their own as long as the targets are the right ones. The Economist, for instance, hailed Epstein’s screed as “a meticulous and devastating account.” This episode once again shows how easily and how often mainstream media outlets in the U.S. circulate and affirm complete fictions using the most authoritative tones, and how the journalists and editors responsible for it never pay any price for doing so.
For three years, we watched as this lie was launched, then took root, then spread until it became unquestionable truth, notwithstanding the fact that it lacked any basis all along, as the NYT’s Savage noted. Now that the documents have emerged proving it to be a lie, the next steps are obvious for any media outlet with integrity: retractions and accountability for those who spread such false and toxic claims so recklessly. But that qualifier — “media outlet with integrity” — is a significant one, and for that reason, it is just as likely that they will allow their falsehoods, and those who spread them, to fester, unmolested by corrective action.
UPDATE: Three quick updates to this story:
1) I should have known that MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid, never one to be excluded from disseminating wild conspiracy theories, publicly endorsed the Missing Eleven Days tale:
2) Only two of the commentators who spread this false claim have thus far commented: former NSA employee Schindler, who responded by blocking me on Twitter and then suggesting that both myself and the Intercept are controlled by Putin; and 2) Kelley, who implied that the documents may be forged because the name of the reservationist at the Mira that appears on the booking form is the same as an Asian actress (it’s also a name shared by dozens of other women, at least, in Hong Kong), only to delete those tweets, finally blaming the Wall Street Journal for the multiple tweets and articles he wrote over the years accusing Snowden of lying about his whereabouts and using that to strongly imply that he was working with the Russians and/or Chinese.
3) The New York Times’ Charlie Savage confirmed the authenticity of the documents by interviewing the barrister in Hong Kong who obtained them, Robert Tibbo, and adds more thoughts here about what this all means for the conspiracists who spread this fiction.