Modern field guide to security and privacy

Hollywood and Washington battle to define Snowden's image

With Hollywood and rights groups stepping up efforts to portray the ex-National Security Agency contractor as a hero, Snowden's detractors in Congress struck back by questioning his motives and ethics. 

Mathias Loevgreen Bojesen/Reuters
American whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen on a screen as he delivers a speech during the Roskilde Festival in Roskilde, Denmark, June 28 2016.

The battle to define Edward Snowden's public image is on.

A day after rights groups announced a petition campaign supporting a presidential pardon for the ex-National Security Agency contractor, and on the eve of the "Snowden" biopic, Washington lawmakers fired off a report aiming to derail the public relations blitz supporting Mr. Snowden's cause.

On Thursday, members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence unanimously approved a report on Snowden, who is facing a 30-year prison sentence on espionage charges for leaking secret documents on US surveillance programs, that labels him as a "serial exaggerator" and aims to create a sharp contrast with the digital privacy community's portrayal of the exiled former contractor as a celebrity whistleblower.

"Edward Snowden is no hero – he's a traitor who willfully betrayed his colleagues and his country," Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R) of California said in a statement. "In light of his long list of exaggerations and outright fabrications detailed in this report, no one should take him at his word."

The report alleges that Snowden had little concern for privacy safeguards while working in government, saying he failed to raise his concerns about civil liberties to superiors or to pass NSA-mandated training on US laws that regulate foreign intelligence collection.

The inquiry also raises questions about Snowden's candor, claiming the NSA leaker exaggerated injuries sustained in Army basic training, lied about his position title at the CIA, and falsified his resume to win promotions at the NSA.

"These findings demonstrate that the public narrative popularized by Snowden and his allies is rife with falsehoods, exaggerations, and crucial omissions, a pattern that began before he stole 1.5 million sensitive documents," the report says.

It's unclear where the public stands in the debate over Snowden. In 2015, a similar pardon campaign gathered more than 160,000 signatures but a poll the same year from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is backing the new campaign, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans viewed him negatively.

Snowden himself has also joined the war of words over his legacy.

Soon after the congressional report surfaced, Snowden took to Twitter to refute claims that he falsified his records and regarding the number of documents that he leaked, stating that many of those documents were downloaded for intelligence uses.

The debate over Snowden’s image has resurfaced with President Obama finalizing the list of people to pardon for federal crimes before he leaves office in January.

Hollywood has also entered the debate in a big way. On Friday, Oliver Stone's "Snowden" biopic, which portrays the whistleblower in a sympathetic light, is set to open in theaters across the US.

"Americans don’t know anything about it because the government lies about it all the time,” Mr. Stone said at a press conference at the Toronto Film Festival last week in reference to US government surveillance programs. "This story not only deals with eavesdropping but mass eavesdropping, drones and cyberwarfare."

And with public relations efforts swirling, supporters, including former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald – who received confidential NSA files from Snowden in Hong Kong in 2013 – also took to Twitter to defend Snowden.  

"BREAKING: Government officials dislike those who expose their illegal surveillance and trigger global debate about their behavior," Mr. Greenwald tweeted. "If you don't want leaks, don't build a secret, illegal system of mass surveillance and then hide it and lie about it to the public."

So far, efforts to lionize Snowden don't appear to be changing Washington's attitude toward the leaker – who's living in Russian under temporary asylum.

The Intelligence Committee's report follows an array of Obama administration calls for Snowden to return to the US to face trial for blowing the whistle on classified US surveillance programs, including the PRISM program the NSA  to search global internet data. In 2015, the Obama administration shot down a public White House petition with more than 160,000 signatures calling for a federal pardon.

Cybersecurity experts say the report could be an effort to debunk Snowden's mystique by playing up his workplace troubles.

"When people leak, the primary reason is almost always that they're disgruntled," said Robert Graham, president of the cybersecurity firm Errata Security. "This report documents that Edward Snowden had typical sort of geek problems at work and had a bad way of handling internal office politics."

What the debate over Snowden's image has changed, Mr. Graham says, is who the NSA and other intelligence agencies hire. "After Snowden, the NSA has cracked down on new hires, to stop hiring people that were like Snowden."

 

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