NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, in an interview on Saturday and then again Tuesday afternoon, vehemently denied media claims that he gave classified information to the governments of China or Russia. He also denied assertions that one or both governments had succeeded in "draining the contents of his laptops." "I never gave any information to either government, and they never took anything from my laptops," he said.
The extraordinary claim that China had drained the contents of Snowden's laptops first appeared in the New York Times in a June 24 article. The paper published the claim with no evidence and without any attribution to any identified sources.
In lieu of any evidence, the NYT circulated this obviously significant assertion by quoting what it called "two Western intelligence experts" who "worked for major government spy agencies." Those "experts" were not identified. The article then stated that these experts "said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong" (emphasis added).
So that's how this "China-drained-his-laptops" claim was created: by the New York Times citing two anonymous sources saying they "believed" this happened. From there, it predictably spread everywhere as truth.
Shortly thereafter, the New Yorker -- under the headline "Why China Let Snowden Go" -- told its readers: "His usefulness was almost exhausted. Intelligence experts cited by the Times believed that the Chinese government 'had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong, and that he said were with him during his stay at a Hong Kong hotel.'" It was then repeatedly cited to demonize Snowden in venues such as DC gossip sheets, right-wing outlets, and diaries at Democratic Party sites.
But there was never any evidence that this was true. The NYT decided to publish this incendiary claim in a news article based purely on rank speculation from two anonymous sources. Obviously, Snowden's denial is not dispositive and shouldn't be treated as such. But it is the only actual evidence on this question thus far.