Who's in Snowden's Secret Hacker Cabal and What Will They Do with New Leaks?

When you're being chased around the world by the CIA and seeking asylum in Ecuador, or Cuba, or Venezuela by way of China and Russia, it's important to have a really good back-up plan. It now sounds like Edward Snowden has a really good back-up plan.

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When you're being chased around the world by the CIA and seeking asylum in Ecuador, or Cuba, or Venezuela by way of China and Russia (even if Putin swears you're still holed up at the airport), it's important to have a really good back-up plan. It now sounds like Edward Snowden has a really good back-up plan: Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that Snowden gave encrypted "archives" to "many different people around the world" in case anything happens to him.

Of course, the NSA leaker knew something would happen to him, before WikiLeaks and the rest of the world got involved. He spent weeks parsing over more files than have come out, Greenwald has said previously, and held back stuff he and the journalists he entrusted didn't think was right for the leaking. But it appears that no matter if he's killed, jailed, extradited, or aprehended — and no matter that investigators "know how many documents he downloaded and what server he took them from" — Snowden has chosen a select group of people to protect the information.

The unknown members of Snowden's cabal don't have the passwords, so they can't just open the archives to see what else he's been hiding, be they completely new leaks or withheld parts of previous disclosures. But there are apparently measures in place to insure the passwords meet the archives if things get that far. "If anything happens at all to Edward Snowden, he told me he has arranged for them to get access to the full archives," Greenwald said. Welp.

This all jibes with what Snowden told the world during his online Q&A session with The Guardian when he teased how future leaks may come out. "All I can say right now is the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," he said. "Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped." So Snowden, who's had at least one more leak about the UK's equivalent of the NSA surface since that Q&A and has quite also famously gone into international hiding, seems to have handed over thumb drives or encrypted files to friends or trusted partners — new or old, we don't know — now empowered with even more secret documents. He's always promised that new leaks would arrive as a slow drip, and apparently the pipe cannot and will not be fixed. But this all begs a very important question: Who has the back-up files? Let's take a few guesses.

Snowden's life has changed dramatically over the last few weeks, obviously. His plan for asylum has changed. He has new, exciting, fugitive friends in high places helping him hop from country to country without a passport. But there are a few likely associates, and less so:

Glenn Greenwald

Probably the most likely collaborator. He was the first journalist who published Snowden's secrets. But, on the other hand, almost two weeks ago — as he was surfacing again in local Hong Kong papers with information about the U.S. hacking into China — Greenwald told The Atlantic Wire's Philip Bump that he didn't know if Snowden had a back-up plan with more leaks ready to go. "I have no idea if he has a contingency plan to protect himself — he might — but everything I've heard from him has been opposed to gratuitous disclosures," he told the Wire. Things change, apparently.

Snowden's girlfriend

Probably not. She (allegedly) had no idea what Snowden was planning, so it seems unlikely he would leave her with a mystery file she couldn't open. But Snowden has misled us in the past. For instance: his plan to fly to Havana. Anything is possible.

His post-high school website buddies

Again, probably not. He's 30 years old now. We all move on after high school.

Chinese journalists

Possibly. He's already leaking things regularly to The South China Morning Post, so it would make sense if he left some documents behind in Hong Kong before flying into Moscow. But the most obvious suspects holding onto Snowden's secrets...


Winner winner chicken dinner! Whether or not he was working with them before he went into hiding the first time, and whether he ditched the files off his person when he made a run for it, it's safe to say that WikiLeaks would know what to do with encrypted codes and how to protect government secrets for a big, well-timed document dump. Julian Assange and Co. seem to have a huge amount of sway over the former government contractor who leaked secret government documents, they convinced him to forgo Iceland for Ecuador, they flew him from Hong Kong to Russia, and they're speaking for him in public, too. WikiLeaks inserted themselves into this story and it's as much about them now as it is about Snowden — or, heaven forbid, the more important conversation about modern intelligence, privacy, and terrorism. Snowden went all-in on Assange, and it would be foolish to believe Assange's advisor and Snowden travel buddy Sarah Harrison weren't at least aware of the rest of the batch of Snowden's secrets that he obtained at Booz Allen and beyond.

He's got other buddies, surely — the lawyer in Hong Kong, the countless acquaintances who popped up on TV in the days following his unmasking — but somewhere out there, someone else has the keys. Stay tuned.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.