NEW YORK -– Former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden has refuted media speculation that he provided classified documents to China and Russia, or that those governments seized them.
"I never gave any information to either government, and they never took anything from my laptops," Snowden said in new interviews with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who has broken several stories based on documents Snowden obtained and leaked from the National Security Agency.
Snowden’s remarks come after major news outlets promoted anonymous claims suggesting that Chinese and Russian authorities had likely obtained the documents, helping support a narrative that the 30-year-old fugitive committed espionage, rather than simply leaking documents to journalists and a filmmaker in hopes of shedding light on U.S. surveillance practices.
The Huffington Post earlier examined how the U.S. government was building a public case against Snowden through the media by passing along unverifiable or unsubstantiated claims about two instances where national security was supposedly jeopardized by his disclosures.
A half-dozen news outlets -– the Associated Press, Reuters, ABC News, the Washington Post, CNN and the Los Angeles Times –- all published strikingly similar claims from anonymous officials that Snowden’s leaks had prompted terrorists to change the way they communicated.
The officials’ claims about changing tactics were given little scrutiny in the recent slew of articles, which either neglected to mention or played down the fact that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had reportedly altered its communications back in 2009 because of NSA concerns.
The media was also responsible for widely circulated assumptions that China and Russia had likely seen all of Snowden’s documents while he was in Hong Kong or in a Moscow airport, where he remains while seeking asylum.
“That stuff is gone,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia told the Washington Post on June 24. “I guarantee the Chinese intelligence service got their hands on that right away. If they imaged the hard drives and then returned them to him, well, then the Russians have that stuff now.”
"Given his stay in Hong Kong and the number of days he was there, the assumption has to be everything he had was compromised," an anonymous official told CNN on June 25. The same official also “didn't dismiss the notion that Russia may have done the same thing."
On June 23, The New York Times cited “two western intelligence experts” as saying “they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong.”
Cable news programs also joined in the assumptions about what Snowden, China or Russia may have done. CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin -- who described Snowden a "grandiose narcissist" in The New Yorker -- suggested the following night on air that Russia would do what’s in its government’s interest, which "presumably includes taking everything in his briefcase and making copies of it."
"Why wouldn't they?" Toobin asked. "They'd be crazy not to."
It’s understandable for journalists to grant anonymity in order to get verifiable information or details that governments, agencies and companies cannot or will not provide publicly. But in granting anonymity to officials and experts to speculate about how Snowden interacted with Chinese and Russian authorities -- without evidence -- the media is amplifying the government’s arguments that he damaged national security, without any accountability.
Greenwald wrote Wednesday that "Snowden's denial is not dispositive and shouldn't be treated as such," but noted that it’s “the only actual evidence on this question thus far.”
Snowden may or may not be telling the full story about his time in Hong Kong or Russia. But without names attached to those claims he handed over intelligence, there's no one to call up to refute him.