We’ve fact-checked statements in the media about Edward Snowden and the NSA before, but by far the biggest falsehood being spread by government advocates is the alleged fact that he took 1.7 million documents from the NSA.
All the parties involved—Snowden, the journalists, and even the government—either deny it or have said they have no reason to believe it is true, yet it has become the go-to number when discussing Snowden's case. It's time news organizations start issuing corrections.
Glenn Greenwald wrote about this last week, showing that news outlets have taken the statement by an NSA official on 60 Minutes that Snowden—at one point or another in his career—“accessed” or “touched” millions of documents and warped it into a claim that he’d stolen that many:
Ever since then, that Snowden “stole” 1.7 or 1.8 million documents from the NSA has been repeated over and over again by US media outlets as verified fact. The Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus, citing an anonymous official source, purported to tell readers that “among the roughly 1.7 million documents he walked away with — the vast majority of which have not been made public — are highly sensitive, specific intelligence reports”. Reuters frequently includes in its reports the unchallenged assertion that “Snowden was believed to have taken 1.7 million computerized documents.” Just this week, the global news agency told its readers that “Snowden was believed to have taken 1.7 million computerized documents.”
As Greenwald pointed out, in an interview given to the Australian Financial Review, former NSA chief Keith Alexander was asked point blank if the NSA can really say how many documents Snowden took. Here's what he said:
Well, I don’t think anybody really knows what he actually took with him, because the way he did it, we don’t have an accurate way of counting. What we do have an accurate way of counting is what he touched, what he may have downloaded, and that was more than a million documents.
Read that again. They do not know how many documents he took. But this actually isn’t anything new, we’ve known this for months. After the New York Times reported Snowden “accessed” 1.7 million files in February, they also wrote, albeit a dozen paragraphs later, that DIA head General Michael Flynn admitted in Congressional testimony they still had “a great deal of uncertainty about what Mr. Snowden possessed. ‘Everything that he touched, we assume that he took,’ said General Flynn.” In other words, they have no idea.
Despite these known facts, even this week, the Wall Street Journal has published an incredibly irresponsible piece by Edward Jay Epstein, who based an entire op-ed around the false 1.7 million statement as a way to claim that Snowden is working for a foreign goverment. And look what happens when you Google the phrase “Snowden 1.7 million”: He either “took,” “has,” or “stole” nearly 2 million documents is all over the entire front page.
So to sum up, Edward Snowden has said the number is made up, the journalists involved deny they have 1.7 million documents, and the government has stated multiple times they do not know how many documents he took. Literally no party in the NSA story believes the 1.7 million number is true, yet most media organizations claim it’s a fact.
We look forward to Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and others who have been peddling this fictitious number issuing corrections.