In the last few months, and especially with the release of the Oliver Stone movie about him, Edward Snowden’s supporters have mounted a furious (and almost certainly doomed) campaign to pressure President Barack Obama to pardon him before he leaves office.
On the left, there’s almost universal support for Snowden. As Yahoo recently reported:
In recent months Snowden “has appeared on giant screens to a sold-out audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, northern Europe’s largest music festival, a symposium on surveillance and civil rights in Tokyo, and Comic-Con in San Diego. In all of these cases, as with most of his appearances, sympathetic crowds greeted him with thunderous applause and praise for his decision to leak classified documents to journalists about U.S. surveillance programs.
“Arguing you don’t care about privacy because you’ve got nothing to hide is no different than saying that you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say,” Snowden, using one of his classic lines, told Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in June. After the crowd — reportedly Snowden’s largest ever — sang “Happy Birthday,” the 33-year-old said: “Everyone, thank you. Really. You guys staying with me… is overwhelming. But this is not about me. This is about us.”
Incidentally, this last line is now a Snowden trademark. He’s an altruist, pure and simple, whose only goal was to expose NSA programs and help save the world. As Eileen Jones wrote here in her review of the movie, this insistence that he sought nothing but the public good is a major part of the heroic profile that he and his advocates present to the world.
“Snowden’s own repeated insistence that “I’m not the story” gets more ludicrous every time he says it, generally in a film or an interview that is busy constituting him as the story,” she wrote. And it’s a bit ironic, she noted, that he claims to have told the filmmaker Laura Poitras “I don’t want to be the story” when he was “paradoxically arranging to have her film him while in hiding at that drab hotel in Hong Kong” for her Academy Award winning documentary Citizenfour.
It’s easy to see why Snowden is beloved by the left — he has all the right enemies, i.e. the national security establishment, and all the right friends, i.e. the ACLU. And he definitely made public a good deal of information that exposed serious abuses and created a global debate about NSA surveillance.
Fine, but he also made public a lot of information that exposed legitimate activities by the NSA and that should not have been disclosed and that doesn’t make him a whistleblower. (Which I’ll discuss more in a follow up story.) I know, for a lot of people on the left, nothing the NSA or CIA does is legitimate. However, let’s not be stupid. Every country in the world snoops on foreign powers and, for example, protecting the country from outside attack is pretty clearly legitimate. The fact that U.S. intelligence agencies have routinely violated their charters and, for example, overthrown democratic governments abroad is reprehensible but that doesn’t mean every action they take is illegal or that everyone who works for them is evil.
In mid-September, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released the executive summary of a 36-page classified report on Snowden that said “the vast majority of the documents he stole have nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests” but rather “pertain to military, defense, and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries.” Yeah, I know, it’s the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence so everything they said must be bullshit. But maybe read the executive summary of the report before concluding that. (The rest of the report is classified.)
In fact, there are still a lot of questions about Snowden and his activities that raise doubts about his candidacy for sainthood, and few on the left care to address them. And whatever the merits of the movie, and Washington Babylon’s reviewer found few, it is preposterous to claim, as Snowden’s supporters vigorously do, that a movie that self-evidently depended on approval from the Kremlin and Edward Snowden and that is a dramatization of real events and that includes outright falsehoods should be serious looked upon as evidence for a pardon.
If Dick Cheney ever gets prosecuted for torture and war crimes, and I’d love to see that happen, I’m pretty sure that submitting Zero Dark Thirty as part of his defense before The Hague would not be admissible as exculpatory evidence. (To see how wildly the movie Snowden veers from reality, see this story in Slate.)
Let’s pretend for a moment that the official story as told by Snowden and his admirers — with Glenn Greenwald, who’s been chasing a movie deal of his own for ages that depends on Snowden being the perfect hero, being his No. 1 cheerleader — is 100 percent true. Snowden was a loyal, patriotic American when he worked for the CIA and the NSA through private contractors but was outraged by what he discovered and felt compelled to expose U.S. government abuses to the world.
OK, there are still a few questions:
First, a lot of what Snowden released was damaging to U.S. foreign policy and NATO — and that’s in principle fine by me — but why didn’t he steal and reveal anything embarrassing to Russia and China, for example? There’s no way he didn’t have access to damaging information about those countries — both who have plenty of dirty secrets as well — so why, if he was just out to save the world, didn’t he think to expose that as well?
It’s reminiscent of Julian Assange of Wikileaks, which gave Snowden huge support, and raises questions about him as well. Whatever his relationship to Russia, Putin must be thrilled with his recent activities. And Assange and Wikileaks get all sorts of leaked and hacked information, but they don’t seem especially eager to expose much damaging to Russia.
Second, Snowden has recently made a few comments critical of Russia, but I’m pretty sure he’s not going to make it a habit. Nor is he in any position to do so. Some believe Snowden was played by Russian intelligence — and that is certainly a plausible theory though one his fawning fans refuse to even entertain — but there is no question that at the moment he effectively answers to Vladimir Putin. “I don’t know if Snowden understood the rules when he got there, but I’m sure he understands them now,” one former CIA case officer told me. “It’s pretty simple. Whether he was told directly or not, Putin let him know the deal: ‘You can live here and help us out or we can send you home. Do you have any questions’.”
And for Russia, Snowden is the gift that just keeps on giving. As noted above, he’s a global celebrity and a regular of the digital speaking network. He’s beloved by the left and civil liberties advocates and every time he makes an appearance he scores points for Russia. He may not be a witting propaganda tool of the Kremlin but he may as well be. Putin clearly wants Snowden in Moscow, otherwise it would be a simple matter for him to put him on a private plane and send him off to Cuba or any other country that will take him. He’s keeping him there because it serves Putin’s interests, not because the former KGB officer is a champion of free speech and civil liberties.
By the way, Yahoo has reported that Snowden has made about $200,000 in speaking fees and apparently pocketed most of it, even though he has claimed he gives much of it to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, where he, Greenwald and Poitras are board members. “I want to make sure journalists are able to operate,” he explained of his alleged contributions during a well remunerated Colorado digital appearance.
But Trevor Timm, president of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and one of Snowden’s great champions, told Yahoo “that the organization never received any direct donations from Snowden as a result of the Colorado talk or any other of his speaking appearances and that on a “handful of occasions” Snowden has forfeited speaking fees and directed that they go to the group, estimating that the organization has received between $10,000 and $20,000 this year under such arrangements.”
“There is nothing remotely improper about Edward Snowden making a living by speaking to global audiences about surveillance and democracy,” his ACLU attorney Ben Wizner told Yahoo. “[Snowden is] “not getting rich off public speaking. He lives a frugal and modest life.” Yeah, I would imagine he does live a modest life in Moscow, especially when he’s probably got a good deal on housing and he’s not paying taxes.
Third and relatedly, there is the question of Snowden’s relationship with the Russian government and intelligence service. Among other things, it’s curious that his local attorney, who represents him pro bono, “is a political supporter of Mr. Putin’s and serves on the Public Chamber, an advisory body that critics have long derided as a Potemkin construct of actual government oversight” and “serves as a member of another board that oversees the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B.”
Russia is an authoritarian state and the idea that Snowden is free to do what he pleases and traipses about Moscow as he likes is ludicrous. “I do have a normal life, I do all of my own shopping, I ride the subway like everybody else,” he has said.
This idea, which suggests the Russian government isn’t keeping tabs on him, is not remotely plausible. In fact, the Kremlin recently admitted that “Snowden has cooperated with Russia’s intelligence services, although it was evident from Ed’s appearance in Moscow over three years ago that he was collaborating,” a New York Observer story recently said. “Every single Western intelligence defector to Russia since 1917 has talked to the Kremlin’s spy services—such is the essential nature of defection—so there was never any reason to think Snowden would be different.”
[Disclosure: I worked at The Intercept with Greenwald and other Snowden worshippers for a short period and hated the place, and in my own characteristically discreet way discussed that publicly. But I’m not raising questions about Snowden because of that. I pretty much supported Snowden uncritically long after I left The Intercept.
It was only after reading more deeply about him, and talking to dozens of people for this story (and the follow-ups) that I realized that there’s a lot about his story that is questionable or just flat out doesn’t add up. Too many people, like me initially, viewed Snowden as purely good (or evil). That’s almost always a mistake.]
To be continued.