Luke Harding has a story at The Guardian describing the weird things that happened while he was writing a book about Edward Snowden: paragraphs suddenly vanishing, his iPhone going wonky. And more and more and more. To the point that it seems … unlikely.
The Guardian, which broke many of the early stories about NSA spying under Glenn Greenwald's byline, asked Harding to tell the story of how those leaks emerged. He wrote The Snowden Files: The Inside Story Of The World's Most Wanted Man after talking to various reporters, including Greenwald. (Greenwald later called the book "bullshit," since it was "written by someone who has never met or even spoken to Edward Snowden.")
Over the course of writing the book, Harding says a number of unusual or questionable things occurred. And, before we look at them closely, we will reiterate: the NSA has repeatedly demonstrated that it is willing to walk as close to legal limits as it can to protect its secrets and collect information. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and not a secret camera.
Within hours of publication of the first [Snowden story] – which revealed that the NSA was mass-scooping data from the US telecoms company Verizon – diggers arrived outside the Guardian's loft office in Broadway. It was a Wednesday evening. They dug up the pavement and replaced it. The same thing happened outside the Guardian's Washington bureau, four blocks from the White House, and the Brooklyn home of US editor-in-chief Janine Gibson.
Harding first made this claim earlier this month. It presupposes that the NSA — or its British equivalent, GCHQ — has a crew of people (or access to a crew of people) that can quickly mobilize with construction equipment to appear as needed to … do what? If anything, we've learned that the NSA has near-universal access to online communications, as needed. So what might they be installing? Listening equipment, underground? Video surveillance tools? If so, why dig up the street? Did they want to mess with The Guardian's toilets?
His most spectacular new claim is of weirdness as he was working on a chapter about the relationship between the NSA and Silicon Valley.
Something odd happened. The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish. When I tried to close my OpenOffice file the keyboard began flashing and bleeping.
Over the next few weeks these incidents of remote deletion happened several times. There was no fixed pattern but it tended to occur when I wrote disparagingly of the NSA.
I mean, come on. Why on Earth would a saboteur come into a file that Harding was working on and delete it in front of his eyes? The only even plausible explanation is that it was an attempt to discredit Harding, should he tell the story, or make him think he was going crazy. If the NSA actually wanted to delete what he wrote, if they had remote access to his computer, just delete the files when he was out of it. This is not rocket science. You might think the NSA is clunky and dumb, but no one is that clunky and dumb.
Another claim. Harding says that, while in Rio, an American named Chris wanted to go sight-seeing with him, out of the blue. Then:
Chris wanted to take my photo, buy me a beer, go for dinner. I declined the beer and dinner, later texting my wife: "The CIA sent someone to check me out. Their techniques as clumsy as Russians." She replied: "Really? WTF?" I added: "God knows where they learn their spycraft." This exchange may have irritated someone. My iPhone flashed and toggled wildly between two screens; the keyboard froze; I couldn't type.
It's very possible that "Chris" was a government agent of some kind. It's possible that he was there to distract Harding while the NSA accessed his iPhone remotely. It's highly unlikely that they used Chris to physically access the phone, but who knows. But the idea that they messed with his phone because he insulted their "spycraft"? Eh.
We'll bookend this again: People didn't think the FBI would do the things J. Edgar Hoover did. People wouldn't have assumed that the CIA was trying to have heads of state killed. The government is powerful and is up to things that even President Obama may not know about. And Harding includes belated caveats: fears were "perhaps mild paranoia;" "Such moments may, of course, have an innocent explanation."
But after months and months of revelations about what the NSA is actually up to, it's possible that we — or, really, Luke Harding — are going too far in our presumptions about what the agency is up to. Conspiracy theories start from kernels of truth: Kennedy was shot, the Trade Towers fell. It's when you start tying in other things, indulging in humanity's favorite game, pattern matching, that things go astray, and in which credibility suffers.
The agency's phone metadata collection, that first story that got machinery digging in the streets according to Harding, only sucks up 30 percent of phone calls because it's too cost prohibitive for the result. But digging up the street for incomprehensible reasons is a priority? Maybe. And maybe someone helped Lee Harvey Oswald.