Yesterday the UK’s Sunday Times ran a shocking story about how Russian and Chinese intelligence officials had decrypted Edward Snowden’s files, placing MI6 “agents” in danger because their identities were revealed in the documents. Those agents had been withdrawn from the field, their lives at risk because of Snowden. The story was dutifully recycled by other Murdoch outlets like The Australian.

Unfortunately, the story was laughably bad: it got basic facts wrong, contained internal contradictions and relied on fictional assertions too numerous to mention (Glenn Greenwald has nailed a number of them here). For example, despite the claim that Russian and Chinese spies “cracked the top-secret cache of files”, the article went on to say “it is not clear whether Russia and China stole Snowden’s data, or whether he voluntarily handed over his secret documents in order to remain at liberty in Hong Kong and Moscow.” The article referred to the detention of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport, and said Miranda had visited Snowden in Moscow, when in fact he had visited journalist Laura Poitras in Berlin (that lie has apparently now been quietly removed by the Sunday Times from the online version of the story). In fact, the documents taken by Snowden included no details on MI6 “agents”, and he did not take the documents with him when he left Hong Kong. An anonymous British government source says Snowden deliberately fled to Russia, when in fact he was trapped in Russia by the US government on his way to Latin America. And the article includes the patently absurd line:

“One senior Home Office official accused Snowden of having ‘blood on his hands’, although Downing Street said there was ‘no evidence of anyone being harmed’.”

And as it turns out, the story relies heavily for its core claims on a set of US Department of Defense talking points recently obtained by Vice News, including the never-substantiated claim about Snowden taking 1.7 million documents (the NSA has repeatedly confirmed it simply doesn’t know how many documents, and which ones, Snowden took).

In short, the story is a rehash of what the US and other governments tried to do to Chelsea Manning — hysterically insisting the material she leaked put lives in danger around the world, when the reality, even admitted by the US government, was that no harm resulted, and none that prosecutors were able to show at her trial.

But why was the story run now? Well, with Congress moving recently to curtail some of the National Security Agency’s powers on the second anniversary of the Snowden leaks, there’s been a lot of discussion of the key role Snowden’s revelations played in exposing the illegal actions of the NSA. The story appears designed to reassert the “Snowden= traitor” narrative.

But there’s another reason, as well. The United States has recently suffered an intelligence disaster many times in magnitude what Snowden did. On June 4, the US government’s public service agency, the Office of Personnel Management, revealed its database of information on 4 million current and former federal employees had been hacked (the suspect, as usual, is China). It hadn’t discovered the hack itself — a third party found it and alerted OPM to it.

The personal information, including financial records and associated data, of 4 million federal employees is serious enough. But it got worse — much, much worse. The subsequent investigation revealed that the security clearance database held by OPM had also been compromised. Whoever hacked into OPM had accessed personal information of about a further 10 million Americans. And, specifically, the information provided by federal employees for the purposes of obtaining security clearances. Readers who have or have had a public service security clearance will know the sort of information this involves — the often extensive personal information on family, friends, medical conditions, alcohol and drug consumption, personal finances, associations, travel and relationships that enable you to be assessed for a security clearance. The material hacked is sourced from a 172-page clearance document federal employees fill out.

But still, it gets worse. Intelligence and covert agencies don’t use OPM for their security clearance processes — they do their own. Which is good. But as this article points out, many people in intelligence and security agencies have come from other sectors of the federal government — where they were previously assessed using OPM. Meaning, among the 14 million people compromised by the OPM hack are almost certainly large numbers of current intelligence and security agency officers, whose personal information has been obtained by China or whichever cyber-villain you want to blame for the hack.

Fourteen million people. Vast amounts of the most personal information a person has. Large numbers of current spies, intelligence analysts, senior intelligence and defence bureaucrats among them.

Unlike the asinine Snowden claims, the OPM hack will help reveal US spies. And it will leave millions of federal workers at risk of all kinds of cyber attacks that exploit personal information, not to mention the blackmail potential of some information in security clearance documents.

As intelligence disasters go, it’s the biggest in decades. Too big for a few recycled smears of Edward Snowden to cover.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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