The Russian and Chinese governments have gained access to and decrypted documents originally obtained from the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) by former contractor Edward Snowden, according to a report in The Sunday Times.
The paper cited senior government officials as saying that the leak had put British agents in danger, forcing the government to withdraw them from “live operations”.
Others, however, including The Guardian and rights group Liberty, noted that such claims have been made before, and argued the report appears to be a move to distract attention from the results of an independent review released last week that criticise the legal framework for the British government’s surveillance operations, amid plans to reintroduce the so-called “Snoopers’ Charter”.
The documents reportedly contain details of secret intelligence techniques and could be used to identify agents
One source reportedly said Snowden had “blood on his hands”, but another acknowledged no agents appeared to have been harmed.
“It is the case that Russians and Chinese have information,” said a Downing Street source cited in the report. “It has meant agents have had to be moved and that knowledge of how we operate has stopped us getting vital information. There is no evidence of anyone being harmed.”
Snowden left the US for Hong Kong in 2013 before departing bound for Latin America via Moscow and Cuba. His passport having been revoked, he was detained in the Moscow airport until an arrangement was made for him to remain in Russia.
It is unclear how the Russian government could have obtained the documents. Snowden has previously said he had no documents with him when leaving Hong Kong, having passed them all on to journalists or destroyed them. Snowden has said the documents were encrypted in such a way that governments could not access them.
Liberty said the report appeared to be a propaganda move on the part of the government.
“Last week, David Anderson’s thoughtful report called for urgent reform of snooping laws – that would not have been possible without Snowden’s revelations,” said the group’s director Shami Chakrabarti, in a statement. “Days later, an ‘unnamed Home Office source’ is accusing him of having blood on his hands. The timing of this exclusive story from the securocrats seems extremely convenient.”
The Guardian noted that the claim that agents had been moved was first made in the UK 18 months ago, and argued that if the documents were known to have been passed on to the Russian and Chinese governments, it is likely the fact would have been announced by US security services.
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