Is Edward Snowden's story unravelling? Why the Guardian's scoop is looking a bit dodgy
By Tim Stanley US politics Last updated: June 12th, 2013
Now that the dust has settled after the Edward Snowden affair, it’s time to ask some tough questions about The Guardian’s scoop of the week. Snowden’s story is that he dropped a $200,000 a year job and a (very attractive) girlfriend in Hawaii for a life in hiding in Hong Kong in order to expose the evils of the NSA's Prism programme. But bits of the story are now being questioned.
1. Why did he go to China? It was always an odd aspect of his plan that he should choose as his refuge from tyranny a totalitarian state that happily spies on its own people and imprisons dissenters. True, Hong Kong itself has a tradition of resistance to dictatorship, but it also has a treaty with the US that would make it relatively easy for America to extradite their guy back. Perhaps Snowden simply has the worst lawyers in history?
2. Snowden’s backstory is not entirely accurate. Booz Allen says that his salary was 40 per cent lower than thought and a real estate agent says that his house in Hawaii was empty for weeks before he vamoosed. Does the fact that he only worked for three months with Booz Allen and the NSA suggest he was planning a hit and run all along – that he took the job with the NSA with the intention of stealing the documents?
3. The administration is pushing back on the definition of what Prism actually is – that it’s not a snooping programme but a data management tool. The call logging accusations are pretty much beyond doubt (and reason enough to scream Big Brother) but the Prism angle is a little less clear. Extremetech points out that it is a programme that has hidden in public sight, that Prism is in fact, “the name of a web data management tool that is so boring that no one had ever bothered to report on its existence before now. It appears that the public Prism tool is simply a way to view and manage collected data, as well as correlate it with the source.” This is not to say that there isn’t a scandal to investigate here: “What is much more important is to pay attention to what data is being collected, and how.” But Prism might not be the smoking gun.
None of this debunks outright Snowden’s claims that the NSA is gathering data, that it has extraordinary power or that it has lied to Congress about it. But it does smack of a lack of fact checking on the part of The Guardian and it risks giving credibility to those who think this is a lot of fuss about nothing (and I'm not one of them). As Joshua Foust of Medium.com suggests, the problem probably rests with Snowden. He first approached the Washington Post via a freelancer and demanded that they publish everything without time for fact checking or government comment. The Post hesitated – so Snowden went to The Guardian instead. This forced the Post to speed up publication of its own story. Frost: “Both papers, in their rush, wound up printing misleading stories.” If so, they're in trouble.