The Curious Fate of Citizen Snowden’s Archive
A 'vast' trove of NSA files remains, with some stuff so sensitive even journalists with access don't want to report it, a SpyTalk investigation finds
THE NEWS THAT EDWARD SNOWDEN received Russian citizenship last Monday re-ignited the furious debate over whether the former National Security Agency contractor is a patriot or a traitor, with predictably diminishing returns.
Critics charged Snowden’s citizenship is proof he was working for the Russian government. Snowden’s admirers recalled how the techie, with a copy of the Constitution in his pocket protector, exposed the top-secret bulk data collection program that ingested personal information about the phone calls of virtually every American—a program that NSA director James Clapper at first told Congress did not exist. (“We probably should have been more transparent,” said Clapper, a master of understatement, told the Washington Post last week.)
Things quickly got personal. State Department spokesman Ned Price trolled Snowden saying he “might well” be conscripted into Russia's war in Ukraine. That wasn’t true, said Snowden’s lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who explained to RIA news service that President Vladimir Putin’s recent mobilization is limited to men with Russian military experience, which Snowden does not have. One Snowden critic, in turn, implied Putin exempted Snowden from military duty in return for secret service to Mother Russia.
Former CIA chief of staff Larry Pfeiffer also sounded the traitor theme. “Complete the process & visit your nearest US consulate to formally renounce your US citizenship,” he urged Snowden in a tweet. It’s likely he'd be detained to stand trial on espionage charges in the U.S., he suggested. “You’ll get to see your parents and sons. On visitation days.”
Snowden, for his part, prayed for privacy, saying he was simply trying to keep his family together by enabling his wife and children to travel more easily between Russia and the United States.
The Post’s coverage of the Citizen Snowden dustup signaled a sea change in how the capital’s paper of record describes the man who filched the crown jewels of the NSA. Eight years ago, executive editor Marty Baron accepted the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for reporting with a salute to the paper’s source, Snowden. “Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service,” Baron said.
This week, the Post, now helmed by Sally Buzbee, a former executive editor of the Associated Press, took a distinctly cooler editorial line. The lead of the Post’s page one story made no mention of public service or Pulitzer prizes, only criminal charges. Snowden “leaked information about top-secret U.S. surveillance programs and is still wanted by Washington on espionage charges,” the Post reported, adding, “the 39 year old Snowden considers himself a whistleblower.” The Post, one might conclude, no longer does. Glenn Greenwald, Snowden’s collaborator-turned-Tucker Carlson mainstay, tweeted it was “extra weird” for the Post to “malign their own source.”
Perhaps even weirder is the odd fate of Snowden’s archive, unmentioned by the Post, Greenwald, and the savants of Twitter. The trove of documents that Snowden stole from internal NSA networks in 2013 contains the keys to the kingdom of U.S. national security: an estimated million–plus documents about how a secretive agency, with annual budget north of $10 billion, intercepts electronic signals from every time zone (and high in the atmosphere) for the sake of surveillance, collection, decryption, and deception programs that protect and advance U.S. national defense and foreign policy goals.
The continuing existence of this archive beyond the control of cleared U.S. officials infuriates Snowden’s critics, who insist he is a criminal, not a whistleblower. It is an article of faith on Twitter that Snowden works for Putin’s government and gave—or was forced to surrender—a copy of his purloined papers to Russian intelligence. Snowden denies that, saying he gave his only copy to filmmaker Laura Poitras and Greenwald, then writing for the Guardian newspaper, in Hong Kong in 2013 before he ever set foot in Moscow, a claim his critics have often challenged but never refuted. Likewise, allegations that Snowden had spied for China, raised by Vice President Dick Cheney and other critics, were never substantiated.
The U.S. government’s criminal charges against Snowden, filed in 2013 and unsealed in 2016, do not allege he made contact with a foreign intelligence service. The criminal complaint indicates the U.S. government had three years to investigate Snowden’s possible foreign ties and found no proof. And, if there was any classified evidence even hinting that Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) or China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) had obtained Snowden’s archive from him, you would think that Snowden’s many critics in the U.S. intelligence community would either declassify it or, well, leak it. That hasn’t happened. For security purposes, U.S. officials have to assume that U.S. adversaries have obtained the archive. That assumption is not a verified fact.
Corroborating exactly how Snowden damaged U.S. intelligence capabilities is also difficult. A top secret Defense Intelligence Agency assessment in 2014 called the damage “staggering.” A heavily redacted version of the report provided to the Guardian from a Freedom of Information Act request called the damage “grave” but lacked any substantiating details.
In response to a Twitter query about Clapper’s charge that Snowden compromised legitimate foreign intelligence activities, former FBI analyst and Defense Intelligence Agency staffer Patricia Ravalgi, replied:
“I worked on one of the damage assessments. Clapper is correct. But unfortunately what he damaged, operations that had to be revamped, renamed- remains classified. I wish more could be revealed so that people would know the truth. But it was extensive.”
I assume what Ravalgi (a SpyTalk contributing writer) says is true, but without public verification it’s impossible for the average citizen to know if the damage was more to the American people’s safety, or to NSA’s pride.
Absent in the latest fusillades aimed at Snowden, meanwhile, has been any mention of the three Americans who are known to still control copies of the Snowden archive: the controversial Greenwald, the artist Poitras, and former Washington Post reporter Bart Gellman, leader of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of NSA surveillance based on Snowden’s leak. (The New York Times and The Guardian are also known to have at least partial copies of the Snowden archive.)
In March 2019, Greenwald tweeted, “Laura and I and others have full copies.” When I spoke recently with Poitras, she declined to comment. Greenwald did not respond to a request for comment. Gellman told me his copy remains in “cold storage.”
These three have the goods that inflame national security mandarins and Twitterati alike. They are not eager to talk about it, not the least because the journalists find themselves in the ironic position of responsibly protecting some of NSA’s most sensitive secrets.
Once upon a time, Greenwald and Poitras were determined to share the Snowden archive widely in service of their ideological goals: exposing, demystifying and denouncing the American surveillance state and national security system. With funding from eBay billionaire and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, they (along with progressive investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill) established First Look Media and launched The Intercept, an online publication dedicated to investigative reporting in national security. They even set up their own private SCIF (Secure Compartmented Information Facility) in midtown Manhattan to protect classified documents they obtained. Following an elaborate security protocol developed by a nine-person research department, reporters from The Intercept and others could get access to records about the inner workings of the NSA, the vast enterprise whose acronym, Beltway wags once joked, stood for “No Such Agency.”
One former First Look employee recalled that the Intercept’s SCIF, located on the 19th floor of a building at 5th Avenue and 16th Street in New York City, featured double doors that could only be opened by two different people with keys.
“You had to leave your phone outside the room,” the employee said, “Inside the room were desks and computers that could only be turned by two different operators. You needed permission to burn anything from the archive to an air-gapped computer. There were many passwords.”
The security was supposed to serve the mission of dissemination.
“We sought to fulfill [Snowden’s] two principal requests for how the materials should be handled,” Greenwald explained in a 2016 Intercept post, “that they be released in conjunction with careful reporting that puts the documents in context and makes them digestible to the public, and that the welfare and reputations of innocent people be safeguarded.”
The Intercept generated a steady stream of reporting about NSA that was less sensational than the initial stories Greenwald and Gellman wrote about NSA’s mass surveillance programs but revelatory nonetheless about the way NSA functioned, from listening posts in Afghanistan and Iraq to the inside jokes of the office newsletter, SID Today.
And then things began to fall apart.
In May 2018, Reality Winner, an NSA translator, sent The Intercept a copy of a classified report on Russian efforts to hack U.S. electoral systems in 2016. Despite their ballyhooed dedication to information protection, the Intercept’s editors fumbled their handling of Winner’s document, which allowed federal investigators to trace it back to her and arrest her before her revelation had even been published.
The fiasco bred staff dissension. As Greenwald drifted away from the Intercept’s high-brow leftism in favor of Tucker Carlson’s trust fund anti-elitism, Intercept editor Betsy Reed lost interest in the Snowden archive as a source of stories. In March 2019, she shuttered First Look’s SCIF, citing other editorial priorities.
Not only was outside access to the Snowden archive ended, the laid-off employees had to sign non-disclosure agreements prohibiting them from talking about their work. The NDAs effectively shrouded Snowden’ archive in a new layer of unofficial secrecy, imposed not by the government but by a left-wing publication wielding NDA’s—a favorite tool of former President Donald Trump, sexual predators and tobacco companies. Weird indeed.
When Poitras complained to management (and the details wound up in the Daily Beast), she was fired. Poitras called Reed’s decision to close the Snowden SCIF as “devastating betrayal of the organization’s founding principles.”
Poitras stressed that while The Intercept had punted on the documents, “the Snowden Archive still exists, and there is still more to report … “
“There is a vast amount of information that hasn’t been reported of enormous contemporary and historical significance,” Poitras added. “The Snowden Archive contains a history of the Iraq war, the rise of the surveillance state, the global structure of the U.S. empire etc.”
Greenwald tweeted he was looking for another institutional sponsor, but he apparently never found one. In October 2020, he quit The Intercept with a blast at its editorial policies. He, too, seems to have lost interest in the Snowden archive. Greenwald did not respond to a request for comment.
Poitras is tight lipped today about The Intercept. She referred SpyTalk to a 2021 interview where she said, “This was a real betrayal of Ed and the many people who put so much effort into creating a secure infrastructure.” Joining The Intercept and First Look Media in 2014, she added, was “her biggest regret.”
“What the Intercept did was a travesty,” former Intercept writer Dan Froomkin told SpyTalk. “The whole point of the news organization was to expose the secrets of the surveillance state and to do so by creating best practices in data privacy and whistleblower protection. All those things are gone.”
Gellman says he feels conflicted about the archive.
“I have wondered whether I should be making this stuff available to the public, and I don’t think I should,” he told SpyTalk. “Maybe down the road. But there are certainly things in there I don’t feel comfortable making public. The sensitivity of some of it diminishes with time, but names and photos of people doing clandestine work doesn’t go stale.”
I asked Gellman about Clapper’s complaint that Snowden “exposed so much else that damaged foreign intelligence capabilities that had nothing to do with so-called domestic surveillance.”
Snowden’s critics “way overstate the case,” he replied. “Their definition of domestic surveillance is very narrow. A lot of surveillance done overseas had big impacts on American users. That was just collateral damage to them. ‘Incidental collection.’ They were aiming for Boris and Natasha’s phone calls, and they got Joe and Mary’s too. But their rules allowed them to keep that information. So then they had this great big bucket [of data] on Americans. Because the information was lawfully collected—there was no American target—they felt entitled to keep it as long as they like. It was a form of indirect surveillance.”
“Yes, there is stuff in there that tells you how they do what they do,” Gellman went on. “One portion of what NSA does is absolutely pure foreign intelligence surveillance. Most Americans would say, ‘Go get' em. That’s what you’re paid to do.’ Snowden didn’t want to decide if that sort of thing should be public. He wanted me to see the files in a raw form so I could decide. I still don’t want to publish those things, even all these years later.”
Froomkin, who gained access to the archive to report a story for the Intercept, said, “There’s a lot of stuff in there that should never see the light of day. There’s no journalistic reason to report on it. …Some of the files I saw, I didn’t want to see.”
Gellman agrees with Poitras that the Snowden archive would be “really valuable for constructive research,” but he added “the opsec [operational security] needed to share it with anyone else is too hard to deal with. I just put the whole thing in cold storage. I feel bad about that.”
Ironies and regrets abound about the fate of the Snowden archive, starting with the fact that today some of the NSA’s most sensitive secrets are being protected by a bodyguard of NSA critics. The Washington Post has virtually disowned the Pulitzer awarded it for its reporting on Snowden’s revelations. Glenn Greenwald is now a regular on a Fox News show that champions Trump and Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban. And Laura Poitrous regrets ever teaming up with The Intercept.
The news organization was “founded to protect sources and whistleblowers and hold the powerful accountable,” Poitras said in a 2021 interview, “...and then didn’t apply its founding principles to itself.”
Nine years after Snowden’s massive leak exploded on the world—not just revealing the NSA’s intelligence overreach but radically rocking the lives of all involved—the remainder of his archive has returned its original status: off-limits.
A few points. Snowden qualifies as a traitor, not a patriot or any kind of whistleblower. Once he left the U.S. with a parcel of classified documents, he crossed the line from possible innocent to criminal. Perhaps that wasn't his original intent, but that does not change what he became, a defector.
If Snowden left his parcel (steamer trunk, briefcase, manila envelope, whatever) unattended in Hong Kong, it's reasonable to assume the Chinese copied the contents.
Snowden has been in Russia for what, eight years? His hosts expected something in return. Years of concentrated debriefings about everything NSA and whatever else he knew, mostly about the U.S. intelligence community, I guess. More valuable than this archive. In fact, probably a treasure trove.