Of all the weird developments we've covered in the ongoing story of Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency files he leaked to Glenn Greenwald and others, it's unlikely anything will ever top an article in The Guardian this week in terms of weirdness and, frankly, total crapola.
Luke Harding, the author of the new book titled The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man, published an item in The Guardian on Thursday detailing his bizarre adventures while writing the book. The headline: "Writing The Snowden Files: 'The paragraph began to self-delete.'"
Yes, Harding wrote that while authoring paragraphs for the book that were particularly critical of NSA, the words began to mysteriously delete as if an unseen "divine" entity (we're supposed to believe that it's either the NSA or its British counterpart, the GCHQ) was pressing the delete key on his keyboard.
I was writing a chapter on the NSA's close, and largely hidden, relationship with Silicon Valley. I wrote that Snowden's revelations had damaged US tech companies and their bottom line. 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. All authors expect criticism. But criticism before publication by an anonymous, divine third party is something novel. I began to leave notes for my secret reader. I tried to be polite, but irritation crept in. Once I wrote: "Good morning. I don't mind you reading my manuscript – you're doing so already – but I'd be grateful if you don't delete it. Thank you." There was no reply.
I know, right? Let's not beat around the bush here. This is total bullshit.
Several things about Harding's tall tale.
1) Earlier in the story, Harding discussed his trip to Rio to meet with Greenwald. Out of nowhere a mysterious character, a stranger named "Chris," approached Harding and asked if he'd like to go sightseeing. Chris, Harding deducted, was a CIA agent. It's bizarre that a total stranger would ask to go sightseeing with another total stranger, but it's entirely possible "Chris" was attracted to Harding and was merely asking him out. It's also possible that Harding was making it up. We have no reason to take him at his word, given the climax of the story.
2) Reacting to the Rio escapade, Harding stated quite clearly that he would disconnect his computer from the internet while working. If so, there's no way anyone would be able to remotely take over his computer.
3) If an NSA agent had infiltrated Harding's laptop, why wouldn't he or she simply delete the files? Seems like a rather obvious move to delete words that Harding was in the process of typing.
4) Harding wrote: "the keyboard began flashing and bleeping." Indeed there are keyboards that light up, but keyboards simply do not "bleep." Computers bleep, but not keyboards. I'll let this one slide, though, because laptop speakers are near the keyboard (though still not the keyboard itself).
5) Speaking of laptops, Harding again repeated the claim that The Guardian's Snowden files were being kept on "laptops." No mention of the desktop PC parts on display in the video that was posted smack in the middle of Harding's new article. Why do reporters and editors from The Guardian continuously write that the files were kept on laptops, when nearly all of the destroyed computer parts shown are from desktop PCs? Regarding this item and #4, we have to ask again: how are these technologically illiterate people allowed to report on an issue that's all about technology?
6) It's hilarious that Harding began writing messages to the invisible deletion gremlin inside his laptop.
7) The simplest explanation is that his delete key was sticking. This happens all the time. Food gets in there; keys get worn after a while (even space age light-up ones); any number of reasonable explanations that should've been at the top of Harding's list before ever reaching NSA or the GCHQ. Funny enough, in the comments under Harding's article, the sole "Guardian Pick" comment was, "... Or you've got a bit of cheese stuck under the delete key of your laptop." Could it be that other staffers from The Guardian think this is bullshit? Maybe.
8) If this had happened to me, I would've grabbed my phone and taken a video of it, especially if I was mental enough to believe it was a government spy. After all, Harding's ostensibly a journalist tasked with gathering information and documentary evidence. But no. No video.
9) How does the cursor move "rapidly from the left, gobbling text?" The cursor only moves left-to-right when words are being typed, not deleted. UPDATE: A reader in the comments noted that perhaps Harding kept accidentally hitting the "Insert" key, which would delete words "from the left" as he typed them.
Ultimately, if this doesn't totally destroy whatever credibility The Guardian had left, I don't know what will. The story has been continually accompanied by a not-so-subtle Alex Jones, paranoid, tinfoil-hat vibe from the beginning, but this is unmitigated InfoWars hokum. There's no evidence here. None. Like many of the other NSA stories, this article is full of conspiratorial leaps of logic, misleading claims and outright nonsense. Again, how are we expected to believe anything published in The Guardian any more?