A spy with computer skill takes a job at one of the country's most secretive intelligence agencies with the intent to ferret out secrets and leak them. He then flees with a trove of stolen computer files, first to China and then on to Russia.
He leaks some information to journalists about US domestic surveillance programs as well as efforts targeting both rivals like China and allies in the European Union. But he says he's holding back the really good stuff as insurance against the US doing him harm. An ally of his says that if everything the fugitive knows becomes public it could be the US government's "worst nightmare." The latest disclosure is that he's seeking political asylum – in Russia.
Spy thriller stuff, no?
But to some, media and public interest in the tale of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who the above paragraphs describe, is a sign of a US media that fawns over and protects the establishment. Chief in pushing this line has been Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who first broke stories provided by Mr. Snowden about the NSA's data collection program in the US and use of secret warrants to collect vast amounts of metadata surrounding the phone calls of millions of Americans.
Greenwald frequently dismisses other reporters as tools of the US government and has complained that coverage of Snowden has been used as a way to avoid writing about the NSA's spying programs. For instance, on Monday he said, "I knew when I began reporting the (NSA) story, that the technique that the US government uses – and its media allies use – against anybody who discloses what they're doing in the dark is to distract attention away from the contents of the revelations"; and, "If you’re a loyalist of the Obama administration, as most of MSNBC is, you are desperate to distract attention away from these disclosures."
In June, shortly after he and a filmmaker released a video interview with Snowden, he suggested that having concerns about Snowden's actions isn't compatible with being a reporter.
"I don’t think there’s any problem with people who want to criticize what [Snowden] did on the merits, although I think it’s extremely strange that people who call themselves journalists find it more contemptible than almost anything when someone steps forward and brings transparency to what the government is doing,” Greenwald said. “That’s supposed to be their jobs. They should be in the lead cheering for that. But, so be it. If they decide that disclosure and transparency are bad things, I think it’s odd that they call themselves journalists, but they have the right to do that.”
I, like many Americans, am concerned about expanding government surveillance, particularly the practice of gobbling up vast amounts of data on people without a specific warrant. I wrote after Greenwald's first big scoop from Snowden of the "Orwellian overtones" of domestic surveillance, of the potential threat to liberty posed by modern technology coupled with insufficiently scrutinized spy agencies – and of the fact that since 9/11, US citizens have conceded a lot of privacy over their fear of terrorism.
But Snowden himself, his actions and motivations, aren't just interesting from a spy thriller perspective. An NSA employee who violated his privacy agreements is now said to be in possession of documents that allegedly can do great harm to the US government, and he gets to decide whether they're released or not. He's currently in Russia, where today he formally sought termporary asylum, according to Wikileaks, which is acting as his legal adviser.
Snowden's apparent commitment to an anti-secrecy agenda is a reminder of a growing trend among younger, technologically savvy citizens, and has broad implications (Joshua Foust wrote an excellent piece a few weeks ago on "hacker ethics shifting into mainstream politics") for how an outsourced, computer-reliant spying infrastructure will be managed going forward.
And while he may or may not be a whistleblower with his disclosures about NSA domestic surveillance (the ACLU has filed a legal challenge to the NSA's phone record collections on the grounds that it is unconstitutional), his decision to reveal details about NSA spying on other countries indicates a willingness to go far beyond that. While Greenwald and Snowden said the principal reason for the leaks was preserving US liberty, disclosures about intelligence collection methods in China, Brazil, and Europe have nothing to do with that. What might, in the fullness of time, he decide to disclose next?
Then there is what the Guardian's Peter Beaumont calls Snowden's apparently "dangerous moral relativism." In a statement issued on Friday, Snowden said: "Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless." Beaumont rightly points out that the human rights record of Russia, in particular, is atrocious, and that "in providing a public relations coup for Putin, Snowden has provided cover for a gross and serial human rights-violating state."
Ecuador and Venezuela's own human rights records and attitude toward freedom of speech are nothing to write home about, either. To praise these countries "as first to stand up against human rights violations" against all evidence to the contrary is not reassuring about Snowden's judgment.
And apparently, that judgment is very important for the US government. This is what Greenwald told Argentina's La Nacion daily over the weekend, according to a translation made by Reuters:
"Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the US government in a single minute than any other person has ever had," Greenwald said. "The US government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare."
At around the same time, Greenwald gave an interview with the Associated Press in which he said that Snowden has "literally thousands of documents" that are "basically the instruction manual for how the NSA is built." He also said that in his estimation, while the documents would be harmful to the US government, they would not be harmful to the American people. He hasn't been forthcoming on what, exactly, would be released if something happened to Snowden or who precisely would get to decide. He told the AP:
"It's not just a matter of, if he dies, things get released, it's more nuanced than that. It's really just a way to protect himself against extremely rogue behavior on the part of the United States, by which I mean violent actions toward him, designed to end his life, and it's just a way to ensure that nobody feels incentivized to do that."
Greenwald took sharp issue with Reuters translation of his interview in a column for the Guardian subtitled "the latest effort to distract attention from the NSA revelations is more absurd than most." Greenwald alleges his interview had been "distorted" by Reuters and said that Snowden's plan to have information released if he's killed isn't a form of threat. Greenwald writes:
That Snowden has created some sort of "dead man's switch" – whereby documents get released in the event that he is killed by the US government – was previously reported weeks ago, and Snowden himself has strongly implied much the same thing. That doesn't mean he thinks the US government is attempting to kill him – he doesn't – just that he's taken precautions against all eventualities, including that one (just incidentally, the notion that a government that has spent the last decade invading, bombing, torturing, rendering, kidnapping, imprisoning without charges, droning, partnering with the worst dictators and murderers, and targeting its own citizens for assassination would be above such conduct is charmingly quaint).
Greenwald can seek to define this as "not a threat," but not everyone will agree.
The whole question about whether Snowden should be granted asylum, something Greenwald supports, breaks on whether you believe the US has the right to demand its spies keep their secrecy agreements and whether prosecution for breaking that law amounts to "persecution." I'm in the camp that believes secrecy is frequently necessary, and that spying is both a useful and necessary tool for national security. Should there be limits on both? Of course.
But veiled threats from Snowden, via intermediaries, are unsettling. While damaging disclosures are now only threatened in the highly unlikely event of a US assassination of Snowden, he very well may change his mind if a time comes when it looks possible that he might be extradited to the US to stand trial.
He's already shown a willingness to use the information at his fingertips to advance his personal agenda. In June, Snowden provided details of NSA computer spying on China and Hong Kong – something that is squarely in the NSA's job description. Greenwald said then he thought "what motivated that leak [by Snowden] was a need to ingratiate himself to the people of Hong Kong and China." At the time, Snowden was hoping for Hong Kong to grant him political asylum.
So Snowden makes for more than irresistibly great copy. He has information that's vital to the foreign spying programs of the US, and the chances that he can and will use it as bargaining chips with foreign powers are real. And the US government, at least in theory, responds to the will of the people via their elected representatives. Who does Snowden answer to?