- REUTERS/Mark Blinch
There are many big questions in the Edward Snowden saga, and unfortunately, the new film “Snowden” leaves a number of them unanswered.
The film is not supposed to be a documentary or a definitive look at Snowden’s story, but things like how he grabbed the secret NSA files or what he was doing in Hong Kong before he met with journalists are not addressed or glossed over.
Still, his supporters see the film’s release as an opening to a possible presidential pardon. But before (or if) that happens, a number of events on the Snowden timeline need to be sorted out.
When did he actually start stealing the files?
- Jürgen Olczyk/Open Road Films
The climax of the film shows Snowden downloading his cache of top secret files to an SD card in just minutes, but the reality is far more murky.
Snowden has never actually said how he grabbed the files, so his use of a Rubik’s Cube to get them past security seems to be just for the film.
Instead of grabbing all the files in one day, Snowden apparently started downloading the cache more than a year before he met with journalists in Hong Kong, accordingto a report from Mark Hosenball in Reuters. In 2014, the New York Times reported that he had used a “quite automated” tool to scrape files off NSA servers while he went about his daily routine.
And he apparently took his final posting as a contractor for NSA with Booz Allen Hamilton so he could access even more, Wired reported.
How many documents did Snowden actually steal from the NSA?
Does the Snowden archive number in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of documents? That’s an open question.
Snowden has never said exactly how many files he grabbed, which has led to speculation that he took many more files that revealed military secrets unrelated to concerns that would fall within the “whistle blowing” category. Snowden denies this is the case.
Regardless, some estimates say that Snowden stole tens of or hundreds of thousands of documents, while the DoD believes the number is closer to 1.7 million.
Knowing the number of what was taken is important, since it puts into context what may be left to learn about NSA and others: As noted by the website Cryptome (which has been critical of the slow drip of leaks), it’s likely we’ve seen less than 1% of the full archive.
What was he doing for 11 days in Hong Kong before he met with journalists?
One of the biggest questions in the saga has been one that Snowden has frequently avoided: What he was doing for 11 days before he met with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in Hong Kong?
Most people know he met with the pair in early June 2013 at the Mira Hotel, with the first release published to The Guardian on June 6. But Snowden actually arrived in Hong Kong on May 20, and what he was doing is still unknown.
There is an 11-day gap between Snowden being in Hawaii and his meeting with journalists, as the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Epstein reported.
Epstein further reported Russian President Vladimir Putin saying that his country’s diplomats had been in contact with Snowden in Hong Kong, and surveillance footage captured him entering the “skyscraper that housed the Russian consulate on three occasions,” though this happened in early June.
So, we know Snowden was in Hong Kong on May 20, but not in the Mira Hotel. Where he was, who he was meeting with, or what he was up to – he won’t really say. But if he was in the Russian embassy at that time, it throws some cold water on the storyline that he ended up “stranded” in Moscow.
Editor’s note: This story was based on reporting from The Wall Street Journal and other sources. That reporting was incorrect, as new documents from The Intercept have shown and definitively detailed Edward Snowden’s whereabouts during the period in question.
The Intercept’s documents showed that Snowden, as he claimed, checked into the Mira Hotel on May 21, and did so under his name and with his own credit cards.
Business Insider regrets the error.
How did he actually end up in Russia?
Snowden has lived under asylum in Moscow since 2013, and it’s not so simple to understand how he got there.
Snowden frequently says questioners should “ask the State Department” if they want to know how he ended up “stranded” in Russia, since his passport was revoked after he left Hong Kong. He says that he was headed to Latin America with Moscow as a layover.
That’s plausible, but wouldn’t a person who has said he was “trained as a spy” know that the Kremlin would be pretty interested in keeping him around?
“Without a doubt, a person with inside knowledge like that, live and in the flesh, would be a very useful catch,” Mikhail Lyubimov, a 20-year veteran of the KGB spying, told Time. “He is carrying information of great importance.”
Instead of his passport being revoked while he was in the air headed to Moscow, Snowden’s passport was voided by the US one day before he left Hong Kong. Despite this, he contends that he had no issues using it to leave China.
While Snowden was working on escaping from Hong Kong, the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks was busy trying to help him, with Julian Assange advising against him going to Latin America since “he would be physically safest in Russia.”
The organization’s help included providing him an Ecuadorian travel document that would help get him out of Hong Kong, but since it was unsigned, it would never get him beyond Moscow. WikiLeaks has never explained this discrepancy, and no one is quite sure whether Snowden used his US passport or the bunk Ecuadorian travel document to escape.
Snowden may not have intended to get stuck in Moscow, but WikiLeaks certainly guided him that way. Which is especially troubling when that organization has close links to Russia, and has chosen not to publish documents that could potentially embarrass the Kremlin.
Furthermore, why didn’t Snowden just go directly from Hawaii to a non-extradition country to meet with journalists, instead of setting up a potential legal battle in Hong Kong (which has an extradition treaty with the US)?
Did he take any of the documents with him?
- Open Road Films/YouTube
Snowden contends that he did not take any documents with him after he gave them to journalists in Hong Kong. In the film, he proclaims “I no longer have any access to the data myself” as he deletes files on his laptop in a Hong Kong hotel room.
But his claim to have destroyed the documents was contradicted in an interview he gave to the South China Morning Post two days after he left Greenwald and Poitras, in which he saidhe would like to leak more documents later to “journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published.”
In that same interview, he leaked specific targets that the NSA was hacking in China, leading another NSA whistleblower to change his view of Snowden.
William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the NSA who blew the whistle on a program called “Stellar Wind,” said that Snowden seemed to be “transitioning from whistleblower to traitor.”
“As I have said in the past, revealing specific targets or successes of US intelligence activities is not in the public interest,” Binney told Business Insider in 2014.