One-Fifth of Documents Edward Snowden Stole Were Blank

Charlie Savage has a great review in the New Yorker, pitting Oliver Stone’s Snowden movie against Edward Jay Epstein’s book (and astutely noting that these two have battled before over JFK history, which presumably explains the use of “Soviet” in the title).

In it, he addresses something fact-based commentators have had to deal with over and over: the claim Snowden stole 1.5 million documents.

Another complication for judging Snowden’s actions is that we do not know how many and which documents he took. Investigators determined only that he “touched” about 1.5 million files—essentially those that were indexed by a search program he used to trawl NSA servers. Many of those files are said to pertain to military and intelligence tools and activities that did not bear on the protection of individual privacy. Snowden’s skeptics assume that he stole every such file. His supporters assume that he did not. In any case they believe his statements that after giving certain NSA archives to the journalists in Hong Kong, he destroyed his hard drives and brought no files to Russia.

But it’s time, once and for all, to reject this frame entirely.

That’s true for several reasons. First, as the House Intelligence Report on Snowden discloses, the Intelligence Community actually has two different counts of what documents Snowden “took.” The 1.5 million number comes from Defense Intelligence Agency.

The IC more generally, though, has a different (undisclosed) number, based off three tiers of damage assessment: those documents that had been released to the public by August 31, 2015, those documents that, “based on forensic analysis, Snowden would have collected in the course of collecting [the documents already released], but have not yet been disclosed to the public.” (PDF 29) The IC believes these documents are in the hands of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and Bart Gellman. The last tier consists of documents that Snowden accessed in some way. The rest of the description of this category is redacted, but the logic involved in the section suggests the IC has good reason to question whether the third tier ever got delivered to journalists.

By May 2016 (much to HPSCI’s apparent chagrin), the IC had stopped doing damage assessment on documents not released the public, which strongly suggests they believed Russia and other adversaries hadn’t and probably wouldn’t obtain them, which in turn suggests the IC either believes the journalists’ operational security is adequate against Russia and China and/or the documents have already been destroyed and certainly didn’t go with Snowden to Russia and get delivered to Vladimir Putin.

Particularly given the later date for the IC assessment, I’d suggest the IC likely has listened for years for signs the wider universe of documents has been released, and have found no sign the documents have. Otherwise they’d be doing a damage assessment on them.

But the 1.5 million number is problematic for two more reasons. First, as Jason Leopold reported in 2015, the 1.5 million number comes from a period when HPSCI was actively soliciting dirt on Snowden that they could (and did) leak to the press. It was designed to be as damning as possible And, as I added at the time, the number also came at a time when Congress was scrambling to give DOD more money to deal with mitigation of Snowden’s leak. In other words, for several reasons Congress was asking the IC to give it the biggest possible number.

But there’s another problem with the 1.5 million number, revealed in the HPSCI report released last month. The 1.5 million isn’t actually all the documents Snowden is known to have touched, or even downloaded. Rather, it is all the documents he touched and downloaded, less some 374,000 “blank documents Snowden downloaded from the Department of the Army Intelligence Information Service (DAIIS) Message Processing System.”

So the real number of documents that Snowden “touched” is almost 1.9 million. But in coming up with its most inflammatory number, DIA eliminated the almost 20% of the documents that it had determined were blank.

But consider what that tacitly admits. It admits that one-fifth of the documents that Snowden not just touched, but actually downloaded, were absolutely useless for the purposes of leaking, because they were blank. But if Snowden downloaded 374,000 blank documents, it is proof he downloaded a bunch things he didn’t intend to leak.

Of course, fear-mongering about Snowden wandering the world with 374,000 blank documents risks making someone look crazy. So maybe that’s the reason the Snowden skeptics have chosen to edit their number down, even while doing so is tacit admission they know he “touched” a lot of things he had no intention of leaking.

If Edward Jay Epstein wants to write the definitive screed against Snowden, he should adopt, instead, that 1.9 million number. But in so doing, he should also admit he’s raising concerns about Snowden leaking blank documents.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

15 replies
  1. martin says:

    emptywheel said
    quote:”The 1.5 million isn’t actually all the documents Snowden is known to have touched, or even downloaded. Rather, it is all the documents he touched and downloaded, less some 374,000 “blank documents Snowden downloaded from the Department of the Army Intelligence Information Service (DAIIS) Message Processing System.”unquote

    wait …wait. That is NOT what the “document” says…………..

    quote”The 1.5 million document count does NOT include 374k blank documents Snowden downloaded from the Department of the Army Intelligence Information Service Message Processing System.”unquote

    Perhaps I’ve missed something, but it appears the actual document statement completely refutes your entire post. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I read that statement three times.

  2. martin says:

    I’ve reread your post emptywheel, and it still sounds like you are INCLUDING those blank docs in the 1.5 million, vs the statement in the document. But then, you said this……

    quote”If Edward Jay Epstein wants to write the definitive screed against Snowden, he should adopt, instead, that 1.9 million number.”unquote

    Which implys exactly what the doc says.  What gives here? You are confusing me here.  Can you please clarify your statements? Thanks

  3. John Casper says:

    martin

    “But consider what that tacitly admits. It admits that one-fifth of the documents that Snowden not just touched, but actually downloaded, were absolutely useless for the purposes of leaking, because they were blank. But if Snowden downloaded 374,000 blank documents, it is proof he downloaded a bunch things he didn’t intend to leak.”

    • Martin says:

      I’m sorry John, but that still didn’t clarify anything for me.  Is emptywheel saying :

      a. The 1.5 million docs INCLUDED the blank docs per her statement:

      …or

      b. The 1.5 million docs did NOT INCLUDE the blank docs

      That is all I am asking. If (a)…that contradicts the document shown

      If (b),  then why is she saying…

      “So the real number of documents that Snowden “touched” is almost 1.9 million.” …which in effect agrees the 1.5 million docs do not contain the blank docs… which means… Epstein is correct…no?

      Regardless, what difference does it make now? The entire planet already has the grist of the disclosures.  Even if all the doc’s haven’t been released. Even if Epstein or the HPSCI is incorrect.  Who gives a fuck now? We know the NSA is lying sack of shit that illegally spies on US citizens.  As for that NSA sockpuppet Epstein,  …eat shit fuck face.

      • John Casper says:

        No martin. You’re real clear. When you realized you dug yourself into a hole, you kept digging. “All” you were trying to do in your 2:30 comment was cover up the error in your two prior comments.

        “If Edward Jay Epstein wants to write the definitive screed against Snowden, he should adopt, instead, that 1.9 million number. But in so doing, he should also admit he’s raising concerns about Snowden leaking blank documents.”

        How much more clear could ew be?

        AFAIK, your first two comments were understandable. You were respectful and detailed, but it happens. I’ve got no problem with those.

        • martin says:

            No martin. You’re real clear. When you realized you dug yourself into a hole, you kept digging. y“All”ou were trying to do in your 2:30 comment was cover up the error in your two prior comments.

          Notwithstanding I may have misunderstood the first quote…fuck you.  I wasn’t trying to cover up ANYTHING.  Moreover… I still don’t get the point here.

           

           

          If anything, all it’s saying is emptywheel is telling Epstein he should ADD the blank docs to the 1.5million. Big deal. Who cares.  In reality, Epstein is still right.  Snowden took 1.5 mil REAL docs,  regardless if he took another 1/5th that were blank. Moreover, it succeeds in doing what the HPSCS wanted all along…a  bigger number of docs….: insert two rolling eyes smiley here.

           

          “…, the 1.5 million number comes from a period when HPSCI was actively soliciting dirt on Snowden that they could (and did) leak to the press. It was designed to be as damning as possible And, as I added at the time, the number also came at a time when Congress was scrambling to give DOD more money to deal with mitigation of Snowden’s leak. In other words, for several reasons Congress was asking the IC to give it the biggest possible number.”

          So..tell me, what in the heck would it accomplish  if Epstein took emptywheels suggestion? Which seems ludicrous as he’s already published.

          • John Casper says:

            martin, this isn’t a dating site. If it were, the answer would still be “no.”

            Have you considered hiring a sex worker? Best of luck.

  4. PeasantParty says:

    I agree. Epstein needs to get updated on it.  Also, I am probably wrong about this, but not all of the documents have been released yet.  Glen would be the ultimate source for that, but the Guardian did not publish them all.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Hard to argue that “could have taken”, “saw” or “presumed to have seen” equates to “taken”.  Presumably, the government knows the difference among these categories, at least by now.  But if these claims were correct, there would be no SCI room in DC, since every visitor would have to be presumed to have taken everything in each room.

    At best, it’s a hypothesis, publicly untested by the government and therefore not yet a basis for public policy or a criminal prosecution.  It’s also the sort of faux logic, Cheney’s purported one percent solution, that one would use in constructing a damaging PR campaign, something of an art from inside the Beltway and in corporate boardrooms.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The existence of so many supposedly classified but blank documents, without a reference to their uselessness or disposition, suggests the intel communities are not well-ordered.  The inflated claim is typical of attempts at character assassination, an old standby for public prosecutors and the CIA alike.

  7. SpaceLifeForm says:

    How does DIA really know that ES downloaded the 374,000 blank documents?

    Did they base this on an internal NSA ip address?  If so, it does not prove that it was ES that actually did it.  It could have been anyone inside NSA going through an internal proxy server.

     

    Next, why does DAIIS have so many blank documents?   Are they referenced as links in other webpages either on NSANET or on DAIIS?   If they are just reference links from other webpages on the various IC intranets, then maybe they consider that ‘touching’ but not downloaded hecause they are using the http server logs to count ‘touching’.  Are they PDFs?  Are they watermarked?   (see canary trap).

    Who is watchimg the watchers?

     

     

     

     

     

  8. Evangelista says:

    “Documents Edward Snowden Stole…”

    Did Snowden actually steal any documents?

    Under the structure for the United States assigned by the United States Constitution, set forth specifically in the Preamble to that document, “We the People” are the ‘sovereign’, the ‘Public’ for whom those who go into ‘service’ in the government of the United States, or through taking employment under those are ‘Public Servants’.  Snowden, working as a servant under other servants in the government of the United States, and so a servant, in his turn, to the People of the United States Public, did not carry away public/government property for his own uses, he, instead, transferred documents amassed and harbored by his fellow servants and the servants they in uturn worked for, to his and their sovereign employers and masters.

    Insofar as the servants Snowden was working for, and the servants those servants were working for, were keeping secrets from the People of the United States, their masters and employers, and in doing so were violating the trusts emplaced in them by The People, their masters, Snowden was ‘whistleblowing’ on the cabal of wrongdoing public servants he was working amongst.

    Only in event the servants had, at that time, in effect, or in their own constructions, usurped sovereignty from their masters, The People, to effectively overthrow the United States created by the United States Constitution, could the servants around, over and above Snowden harbor secrets their employers, and masters, could not be privy to, individually and in their entirety as the population of the United States.  Thus, only if the lawful and legitimate government structure of the Constitutionally created United States government has been overthrown can Snowden’s action of passing servant-collected and harbored information to those servants’ masters be logically ascribed an act of theft.

  9. John Casper says:

    So if a “public servant” had “transferred” ICBM launch codes or crop reports, that’s OK with you?
    And it wasn’t stealing?

  10. Ghostmoon says:

    Don’t be silly that’s not relevant to the observation relating to the betrayal of our people by our “public servants”.

    The American people trust their servants to engage in their duties with honor.

    History has already proven these meretricious types, call them “self-servants” do much more harm than good and must be exposed at every turn when they successfully break the internal checks and systems for reporting corruption wrong doing or other profoundly unconstitutional acts. A last ditch “hail Mary” in rescuing Constitutional gov. from what must otherwise lead to its destruction.

    ICBM codes wtf that was childish bro

  11. John Casper says:

    ghost,

    Did you miss the quotation marks around “public servant?”

    I intended my comment to display as a reply to Evangelista.

Comments are closed.