Last week, I discussed here some of the questions surrounding Edward Snowden, the NSA “whistleblower,” who has been embraced by liberals and the left. The uncritical support Snowden enjoys was personally reinforced for me by the hate mail and angry posts on social media that the story generated.
Snowden did certainly reveal information that exposed serious abuses and started, to some extent, a national conversation about surveillance and the NSA. But the narrative that he is an altruistic saint has become an article of faith on the left, akin to what the 2nd Amendment is on the right.
You can’t raise any questions about Snowden— about his motives and methods, what he accomplished, did he leak information that should not have been exposed — without being accused of being a stooge of the CIA or the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which recently released a three-page executive summary of its Snowden inquiry.
(Before getting started, here’s a link to the Committee’s executive summary. Here’s a link to a story savaging the Committee by Barton Gellman, one of the journalists who Snowden leaked to. Here’s a link to a story about Snowden’s Twitter defense against the Committee’s report.)
The problem is that there’s a lot of information that’s still not available about Snowden’s background and actions. On many issues we only have Snowden’s word and for a lot of people that seems to be good enough. My view is that every source should be held to the same level of scrutiny and not be given a free pass just because you — as a news consumer or journalist — generally share their views.
Just look at Snowden’s conduct from a personal standpoint. According to Mark Hosenball and Warren Strobel of Reuters, he obtained some of the documents he leaked by tricking as many as 25 colleagues — he lied to them, to be more direct — into giving him their logins and passwords and many of them were fired as a result.
I guess we’re just supposed to say it was all for the public’s good and the people who were fired were evil — or just hadn’t yet seen the light like Snowden? — but what would you think of a colleague who did that to you? It’s not heroic behavior, to put it mildly.
Check out this interview with John Young and Deborah Natsios, founders of Cryptome, one of the world’s oldest repositories of leaked intelligence documents. They say that Snowden is not fully believable because he’s a former spy and that, “You cannot trust anyone with a security clearance…They have to lie to you. It’s not a glorious role, it’s a dirty role.” I don’t agree entirely with this assessment, but I do think Snowden’s background working at the CIA and for an NSA contractor should at least make people wary of uncritically believing his entire story, which at points appears shaky.
For example, Snowden says that the March 2013 congressional testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was a “breaking point” for him, and that’s when he began his mass downloads of information. The Committee says that he began downloading information eight months prior to Clapper’s testimony.
As always, the Committee could be incompetent or lying — and since its full report is classified we don’t know what this is timeline is based on. But I haven’t seen this fundamental point rebutted other than by Snowden himself and it could shed a lot of light on his motivation and general credibility.
Here’s another rather important issue. The Committee “found no evidence that Snowden took any official effort to express concerns about U.S. intelligence activities — legal, moral, or otherwise — to any oversight officials within the U.S. government, despite numerous avenues for him to do so.”
A story in VICE earlier this year runs counter to that, using information obtained by FOIA, and says Snowden tried to reach out to NSA. Snowden declined to respond to questions from VICE, but his attorney, Ben Wizner of the ACLU, told VICE that Snowden was “ambivalent” about discussing the matter because he “believes the NSA is still playing games with selective releases, and [he] therefore chooses not to participate in this effort. He doesn’t trust that the intelligence community will operate in good faith.” For its part, NSA claims that it had no way of knowing he was seriously disgruntled and was interested in blowing the whistle on illegal activities — and there’s nothing in the emails VICE obtained that contradicts that.
And here’s a question: Shouldn’t Snowden have his own information to release that backs his own storyline? Here’s a guy who took off with a huge number of secret documents but he didn’t take with him any his email correspondence with NSA or anyone else that he allegedly approached as a whistleblower? That strains credulity.
Also, it’s sort of surprising that Snowden — who says he only released information in the public interest and nothing detrimental to national security — admitted during an interview with John Oliver that he hadn’t even read all of the documents he released. Oliver was by no means hostile to Snowden, but he seems to be the only person thus far who asked him difficult questions, and Snowden had few answers.
Incidentally, as seen in the interview (and elsewhere), Snowden did most definitely release information that should not have been disclosed — and then in one obvious case blamed the New York Times for inadvertently failing to redact a slide that it published. But it certainly would have helped if he’d read through all the documents he swiped before handing them out, as he has suggested.
Snowden would surely have taken huge risks by going through official whistleblowing channels yet there’s nothing in the record that shows he really tried that route. His emails to NSA are very vague and he could have tried a multitude of other routes — congressional oversight committees, various inspector generals, or going directly to a member of congress that would have been sympathetic to his story.
There was no guarantee of success — though as far as I know there is no precedent for a member of congress ratting out a whistleblower so that would have been an interesting route to pursue. “There was no ticking time bomb,” says Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents whistleblowers. “He could have taken an extra few months to explore his options. He went from A to Z with nothing in between. Snowden had important information that had to be stopped but there was no sifting and sorting; he just gave the information away to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.
That was an unfortunate decision and ultimately led to a good chunk of his stolen documents being buried again for years, this time with Pierre Omidyar’s Intercept holding the key as opposed to the NSA, but generally with the same result. As of earlier this year, it had only released 6,318 pages of what The Guardian first reported as 58,000 files. (Greenwald later decided to “broaden access” to the files in response to complaints, but the vast majority still are not available to journalists, researchers and the public.)
Natsios, in the interview above, said:
It’s a second secret regime that’s been imposed by the media proxies. The assumption is there should be a media pathway to the public. Well, that could be a fallacy…If we’re to believes Snowden’s current media proxies and his testimony through them, he’s been extremely cautious and controlling about his release. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. He’s been extremely particular about what he wants to let go evidently and what he keeps in reserve. That’s his choice. But these are taxpayer-paid documents belonging in the public domain.
Other whistleblowers, including Daniel Ellsberg, acted swiftly to put everything they obtained in the public record, as have Young and Natsios. “We did not seek celebrity,” Young said. “We thought we should do public service quietly and non-ostentatiously. We don’t like high-profile activity because we think it disrupts the process.” (Young also blasts the ACLU, saying it has used Snowden “for funding purposes…..[while] turning down more needy people because they’re not good for fund-raising.”)
One also has to wonder about why Snowden initially went to Greenwald and Poitras, who have milked this story for every nickel they can get. There were plenty of better options and neither Greenwald nor Poitras appear to be devoting huge amounts to time to the story now even as they refuse to share most of what Snowden gave them.
“I don’t know why Snowden didn’t go to [more experienced national security writers] instead of those assholes he went to. That’s a story that hasn’t been told. Why did he go to these technologically illiterate people to reveal this stuff to? Someone sold him a bill of goods. We don’t know who fed him into this group.
I worked with Greenwald for a short time at The Intercept and I was shocked to see that he not only didn’t understand the surveillance issue but neither he nor his reporting colleagues had any sources in the intelligence community. I’m sure their fans think that’s great — this makes them outsiders — but it sort of helps to understand stories that you’re writing about. Greenwald at least never had the ability to understand the documents he received.
I was at The Intercept when it published its first big story — on allegations of spying on Muslim-Americans — and it had to call in an outside reporter, from the evil mainstream press, to actually do the reporting and to keep the publication from making huge mistakes. So it’s no surprise to see how little The Intercept has produced with the Snowden documents.
“I’ve seen their in-house experts miss important revelations, particularly about the contractors involved in NSA intelligence gathering,” Tim Shorrock, one of the country’s best reporters on national security, has written. “By refusing and delaying access to experts in critical areas of intelligence and acting like each successive release from their reporters was a major scoop and a reflection on their own greatness, The Intercept did a disservice to journalism and the public.”
From the beginning Greenwald has been little more than a PR spokesman for Snowden. If you must, go back and watch CitizenFour, Poitras’s documentary, to see the level of skepticism the pair brought to their encounter with Snowden.
I saw Greenwald speak in Washington in 2014, when he was promoting his book — and feverishly chasing a movie deal — No Place to Hide. It was immediately evident that he was way out of his league when it came to the topic of surveillance and that he was certain — and when Greenwald is certain there can be no doubt — that Snowden was a pure hero.
Glenn couldn’t even answer simple questions about surveillance — it was like watching Donald Trump talk about cyberwarfare at the first presidential debate — and kept shifting the topic back to Snowden’s limitless virtues. Of course, his black and white storyline was convenient in his desperate pursuit of a Hollywood deal but it makes for bad journalism. A source’s value isn’t measured by his or her “goodness” but in whether they’re telling the truth and can back it up — and whether it fits your political preferences or not. But Glenn had — and continues to have — a huge personal and professional investment in Snowden as Superhero.
I don’t care whether Snowden is perfect or not but I do think it’s important to know what his motivations were and if his story holds up. And that will be the subject of Part III, coming next week.