In a letter to a former senator released this week, NSA leaker Edward Snowden swore that there is no way the Russian government can get any sensitive information from him — despite the fact that he has been camped out in the Moscow airport for the past few weeks, carrying four laptops that he had supposedly used to lift the NSA’s secrets.
“No intelligence service — not even our own — has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect,” Snowden wrote to former senator Gordon Humphrey, R-N.H., in an email published by the Guardian. “You may rest easy knowing (that) I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”
At first glance, the message seems like more braggadocio from a man who has appeared to lay it on thick before, from his self-proclaimed ability to bug the president to his claims of being able to “shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon.” It’s widely assumed in both the business and the intelligence communities that any electronics brought into Moscow (or Hong Kong, for that matter) are going to be compromised by the country’s spy agency. Perhaps he is underestimating the technical prowess of the Russian security services; perhaps he is overestimating his own.
But there’s a third possibility: that Snowden is telling the truth. That there really is no way for him to give up any more information, other than the stuff in his head. Snowden may have left the United States with “four computers that enabled him to gain access to some of the U.S. government’s most highly classified secrets,” as the Guardian put it. But he may not have those secrets now. The laptops could very well be empty — and the secrets could be somewhere else.