This is a chapter from News of Devils, a short book about how the media have covered the Edward Snowden revelations. It is available to buy as a paperback (US edition here, UK edition here) and as an ebook (US edition here, UK edition here). 

There have been and remain two major areas of danger to national security in the Edward Snowden story. The first is reckless or inadvertent exposure of information in the articles and the excerpts of documents published. The second is in Snowden or those with access to the documents practising poor security measures, or simply not knowing what they’re doing to make sure the material doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Before travelling to Hong Kong to meet Snowden, Glenn Greenwald asked him to send him some documents so he could have some idea of what he was letting himself in for:

‘To do that, [Snowden] told me again to install various programs. I then spent a couple of days online as the source walked me through, step by step, how to install and use each program, including, finally, PGP encryption. Knowing that I was a beginner, he exhibited great patience, literally on the level of “Click the blue button, now press OK, now go to the next screen.”’¹

Snowden then sent Greenwald a file containing around 25 documents:

‘I un-zipped the file, saw the list of documents, and randomly clicked on one of them. At the top of the page in red letters, a code appeared: “TOP SECRET//COMINT/NOFORN/.”

This meant the document had been legally designated top secret, pertained to communications intelligence (COMINT), and was not for distribution to foreign nationals, including international organizations or coalition partners (NOFORN). There it was with incontrovertible clarity: a highly confidential communication from the NSA, one of the most secretive agencies in the world’s most powerful government. Nothing of this significance had ever been leaked from the NSA, not in all the six-decade history of the agency. I now had a couple dozen such items in my possession. And the person I had spent hours chatting with over the last two days had many, many more to give me.’²

Earlier, Greenwald and Poitras had discussed the possibility the source might send them forged documents, perhaps as part of a trap by the government. But as soon as he received this first batch of documents, Greenwald seems to have forgotten about that possibility and immediately assumed they must be authentic, apparently simply on the basis that the acronyms at the top of the documents were ones used in real life. This was, for him, ‘incontrovertible clarity’. Clearly, they looked real, and in fact were. But they might nevertheless not have been. He doesn’t seem to have reconsidered the possibility they were doctored or well-crafted fakes, despite his knowledge that nothing coming close to their purported significance had ever been leaked before. It’s a basic tenet that the larger a claim the more evidence you need to back it, and forged and fabricated intelligence documents are extremely common in the espionage world. But his scepticism, fact-checking ability and cold eye to the possibilities of unseen issues that all good journalists have as second nature seems to have been entirely lacking here.

On top of this, having spent a couple of days being walked through programs by his source to ensure their communications were secure, Greenwald doesn’t seem to have grasped the reason why Snowden had bothered to do that with him. His dedication to protecting his source was so minimal that as soon as he’d read this first batch of documents he called Janine Gibson, the editor-in-chief of the American edition of The Guardian, via Skype to tell her, as Gibson remembers it, that he thought he might have ‘the biggest intelligence leak in a generation – if not ever’.³

That behaviour is astonishing enough, but even more so when you consider that the second document of Snowden’s he’d just looked at was a PowerPoint presentation revealing an NSA program to collect information ‘directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple’.⁴

Yes, Glenn Greenwald was sent a document saying that the NSA could access Skype’s servers, and the first thing he did was call his editor to discuss his source on Skype.

Gibson hadn’t read the document, of course, but even so was already aware that Skype wasn’t a particularly safe form of technology because of the WikiLeaks story.⁵ She told Greenwald to get off Skype at once and catch a plane to New York so they could discuss it in person instead. But that was some way into their Skype chat: by then Greenwald had already told her he had a source with access to ‘a large amount of top secret documents from the NSA’ and that the source was in Hong Kong.

Technical ignorance is one thing, a basic lack of common sense another – even allowing for excitement at the scoop, this was stunning carelessness. Had anyone been listening in – if the NSA were as omniscient as Snowden has claimed⁶ – he wouldn’t have been in Hong Kong by the time Greenwald arrived there on June 2, but more likely on his way back to the United States in handcuffs.

Unlike Greenwald, Janine Gibson didn’t instantly believe that the documents were real. The verification process at The Guardian was, she says, ‘really intense’.⁷ The first step in that process was for Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill to interview Snowden face to face in Hong Kong. The initial feedback from that meeting worried Gibson, because Snowden appeared too young to be as senior as he had claimed. After three days of grilling Snowden on his career and credentials, MacAskill and Greenwald were convinced by him, but Gibson and others at the paper were very conscious that all their work on the story could be in vain, and it might still be nothing but ‘a massive, massive hoax’. It wasn’t until a Verizon spokesperson called The Guardian back regarding the FISA court order story and journalists at the paper had spoken to the administration that Gibson was finally convinced that the documents were genuine.⁸

Greenwald’s hunch had been right, of course – but his concern about the material’s authenticity seems to have been much less pronounced. In the past year and a half, he has repeatedly claimed that there is no possibility any foreign intelligence agency could have accessed Snowden’s documents, either through Snowden, through any of the journalists he gave the documents to or some other way. But his amateur-hour cock-up with Skype straight after receiving Snowden’s first documents don’t give those statements much credibility.

Neither does his knowledge of espionage.

“He was very insistent he does not want to publish documents to harm individuals or blow anyone’s undercover status,” Greenwald said. He added that Snowden told him, “Leaking CIA documents can actually harm people, whereas leaking NSA documents can harm systems.”⁹

Did Snowden really say this and, if so, did Greenwald believe him? The NSA employs intelligence officers, runs agents and assets around the world, and even a codename or hint about an operation might blow someone’s cover and harm living, breathing human beings. Neither does one need to be under cover to be at risk of harm.

Gauging the risks to national security is a hard task and this story is on an unprecedented scale. But one’s confidence that these issues are being considered carefully is seriously undermined if one of the journalists publishing this material doesn’t even understand such fundamental issues. His own source – a human being, not a system – had worked for the CIA and the NSA, and in both cases information about his role, if picked up by bad actors, could have led to him being harmed. It’s hard to believe he is oblivious to the possibility of harm coming to people in the NSA from careless exposure.



[1] Chapter 1, No Place To Hide by Greenwald.

[2] Ibid.


[4] No Place To Hide by Greenwald.


[6]‘“Perhaps I am naive,” he replied, “but I believe that at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents.”’ and ‘“It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose . . . omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance. . . . ”’:




Header image: NASA