Snowden says he doesn't want NSA leaks to be about him. Really?

'I want it to be about what the US government is doing,' said NSA leaker Edward Snowden. But if that were true, we probably wouldn't even know his name. 

Vincent Yu/AP
A TV screen shows a news report of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping US surveillance programs, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong Sunday.

Two weeks ago, Edward Snowden gave The Guardian permission to disclose that he was the leaker of documents from the US National Security Agency.

"I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me," the former NSA contractor said then. "I want it to be about what the US government is doing."

If that was really his desire, he's certainly gone about it in a funny way. From that day, every step he's taken couldn't have been better calculated to draw attention to himself. Over the weekend he even turned the media dial up when he fled from Hong Kong to the loving bosom of Mother Russia.

And with the assistance of Julian Assange, Mr. Snowden's "where's Waldo" saga is turning into a WikiLeaks production.

Mr. Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has staked out a consistently anti-American and techno-libertarian position in the past few years. The US government is motivated by malice and power lust in his worldview, its rivals like Russia (where state-owned broadcaster RT ran a show of Assange's) get a free pass, and secrecy is an evil in and of itself. Though he presents himself as a champion of free-speech, Assange has sought refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, never mind that the country has a poor and deteriorating record on freedom of speech. The Committee to Protect Journalists listed Ecuador and Russia as two of the 10 worst places to be a journalist in the world past year.

Like Assange, Snowden has requested asylum in Ecuador. And while Snowden is avoiding US arrest and prosecution for leaking classified documents, Assange is hiding out in the embassy to avoid extradition to face rape and sexual assault charges laid against him by two women in Sweden. So jumping into the boat with Assange will do Snowden's cause, whatever it turns out to be, little good in the US, nor will his sojourn in Russia, no matter how long it lasts.

Leaving aside a discussion of whether Snowden has done the right thing, his actions have undermined the likelihood he'll reach a much broader audience in the US, where voters are already inclined to approve of government surveillance as a safety measure. There is inevitable speculation today, fair or unfair, that Snowden will be interviewed by the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB.

And the simple fact of the matter is that this is being played for political advantage by all sides. Assange and WikiLeaks are seeking regained relevance and publicity, Ecuador would likely love to use its embrace of a "whistleblower" to fight its developing image of an increasingly repressive state, and Russia (which deals with its leakers rather more harshly than the US does) is surely enjoying tweaking the nose of the US, which frequently lectures it about its own country's track record on basic freedoms. 

What is Snowden's agenda?

Originally, it seemed to be about violations of the US Constitution's protections against unreasonable searches. But during his stay in Hong Kong, he expanded his roster of leaks from claims that the NSA was carrying out wide-spread surveillance of US citizens to disclosing information about US surveillance programs against China, which is emerging as one of America's great rivals for strategic influence.

That choice weakened any future claims he might make that his decision to violate the terms of his top-secret clearance was motivated solely by a sense of patriotism or commitment to his own interpretation of the Constitution. While his opinion may prove right (the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a constitutional challenge to one of the programs though others claim that Snowden has dramatically overstated the extent of US domestic surveillance), today comes news that his agenda was far bigger.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reports today that Snowden told the paper on June 12 (why it sat on the news til now they didn't say; it probably had to do with a promise that they'd wait until he left) that he'd taken his job with NSA contractor Booz Allen with the express intention of gaining access to US secrets so he could steal them and release them to the world.

"Asked if he specifically went to Booz Allen Hamilton to gather evidence of surveillance, he replied: 'Correct on Booz,'" the paper writes. "His intention was to collect information about the NSA hacking into 'the whole world' and 'not specifically Hong Kong and China' ... 'If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published.'"

I am not certain what to think about Snowden's actions. There's no question the federal government's powers have expanded since 9/11, particularly when it comes to civil liberties. But Snowden has not stood up in an act of civil disobedience, pointed the finger and accepted the consequences.

He's consistently associated himself with people and nations that don't have America's best interests at heart since his first leaks hit The Guardian, and as he looks for aid around the globe, he carries with him what he claims are four laptops filled with documents and information stolen from NSA systems.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.