Edward Snowden is back in the news in a big way. In a far ranging interview with Wired.com over three days, a new persona of Snowden is revealed and a new light shed on him and the motivations behind his revelations of June 2013. Over the past 14 months Snowden has been praised and chastised in many quarters. He has been characterized as a hero or traitor depending on your political persuasion or ideology. After this latest interview, the longest, by far, since his enforced exile in Russia, you may change your thinking about his actions and motives.
Snowden was very wary about an extensive interview and the logistics of it were a well- guarded secret. He was determined not to do anything stupid which might endanger his safety and security. Over the past year Edward Snowden has employed myriad tactics and guises to thwart the efforts of those who would seek to deliver him into the clutches of American law enforcement might. As the article implies, he is the most wanted man in America as much as the Obama administration would have you believe otherwise. Many in government are shaking in their boots over what has yet to be revealed.
The reporter who scored the interview most likely did so because of a commonality that Edward Snowden felt for him. The author describes it as a kinship born of NSA duty. The author himself was a self-described whistleblower during the Vietnam War era. Ironically, the committee before whom he testified, was chaired by Senator Frank Church. It was this committee from which sprang the legislation under which Edward Snowden is charged. At this moment Snowden is very much a loner, eschewing contact with Americans or other Westerners. He keeps a low profile and is seldom recognized in Russia except for maybe at computer stores. He lives modestly as his attire attests.
Snowden’s initial period of asylum expired at the end of July. It is learned that he has been granted a three year extension. Whether it is allowed to run its course will depend upon many factors- not the least of which are the conditions which he will be allowed to enter the US. Snowden is willing-even relishes the opportunity to return to America but he is wary about being tossed into prison without due process or whilst being silenced before he can state his case. It is doubtful, based on what he knows, that he will be allowed a public platform from whence he can criticize US government surveillance practices.
It should be noted that Snowden is not involved in any espionage activity while in Russia, if indeed what he has done can be portrayed as espionage. He has unburdened himself of all documents and possesses nothing that can be released to further harm the American spy apparatus. The documents and/or the information therein is in the possession of the Guardian newspaper, the New York Times or the Washington Post. Thus even if Snowden should surrender or be apprehended, the US government would still be at the mercy of his original decision to leak the information. In that sense, the US is impotent.
Snowden didn’t foresee himself as the pop culture icon he was to become- an internet savior and leaker of a massive cache of secrets. “I thought it was likely that society collectively would just shrug and move on,” he says. Instead, the NSA’s surveillance has become one of the most pressing issues in the national conversation and a thorn in Obama’s side even as he weaves through tricky negotiations on other matters with Russia. Congress is now debating anti-surveillance legislation, the US Supreme Court is weighing warrantless wiretapping issues and the general public’s opinion has shifted in favour of reining in rogue, mass data collection.
For his part, Snowden claims that he left a trail that would be easy for the spy agencies to follow whereby they could determine which documents he copied and which he just “touched.” He had hoped that this would show the agencies that his aim was not espionage but whistleblowing. According to him it was hoped that the government would be forewarned in order to prepare for future leaks and take appropriate steps to mitigate the damage. Instead the NSA panicked and, in their audit, it was reported that 1.7 million documents were compromised while Snowden claims the figure is far less. Moreover, he feels that they fear he will reveal something akin to a “smoking gun” which could ruin many political lives. If this is the case, he says, it probably means that there is some material which could be dangerous to someone. Snowden himself doesn’t know because he didn’t read everything he misappropriated. He used a web crawler program which searched and copied all documents which corresponded to a key word or combination thereof.
The interview was revealing for other things which were disclosed. For example, evidence seems to support the theory that there is another anonymous leaker- a Snowden wannabe whistleblower, an admirer or, at least an empathizer. It is doubtful that information relating to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone being tapped came from Snowden’s stash. In fact, the source might be affiliated with American documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, who, along with Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian is deeply involved with the Snowden situation. Through her attorney she dodged any question of impropriety, refusing to admit or deny complicity. But make no mistake, Snowden takes full responsibility for the disclosures though is dismayed by the aftermath.
How did Edward Snowden reach this point. His life is not extraordinary by any means. In fact he was brought up in a household that had strong ties to the federal government. He was born on June 21, 1983 in a Maryland suburb not far from NSA headquarters. His father, Lon, rose from the enlisted ranks in the Coast Guard to achieve the rank of warrant officer. His mother, Wendy, worked for the US District Court in Baltimore, while his older sister, Jessica, became a lawyer at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington. ’Everybody in my family has worked for the federal government in one way or another,” Snowden said. ’I expected to pursue the same path.” With an IQ of above 145 and eschewing television he embraced books, mainly Greek mythology. This set him on a path to a cerebral career- one involving identifying and solving problems, much like mythology presented frameworks for confronting and solving moral dilemmas. Perhaps it was from this the moral imperative to expose what he considered wrongdoing sprang.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Snowden, profoundly affected by the carnage, joined the Army special forces. He was in favor of the incursion into Iraq as he believed the government’s position that there was dangerous WMD there. But after breaking both his legs in training he was discharged. He stayed in the federal government arena, employing his technical computer skills and gravitating to the CIA where he distinguished himself enough to be sent to the CIA’s secret school for technology specialists. It was after this training was completed in March of 2007 that he was sent to Geneva, Switzerland and was assigned, as a cover, to the US mission to the United Nations.
It was in Geneva that Snowden would see firsthand some of the moral compromises CIA agents made in the field and he, at the same time met many operatives who were upset at these compromises and American foreign policy in the Middle East in general, not to mention the torture and warrantless wiretapping which were all pervasive. With Obama’s ascendancy and the attendant hope of change in the air, Snowden became cautiously optimistic. This optimism was soon replaced by the harsh reality that Obama was not following up on his lofty rhetoric. He said, ’Not only did they not fulfill those promises, but they entirely repudiated them. What does this mean for a society, for a democracy, when the people you elect on the basis of promises can basically suborn the will of the electorate?”
Over the years, as Snowden shifted to the NSA in 2010, his disillusionment had grown and festered. Employed by NSA contractors he was now learning about targeted killings, drone attacks and mass surveillance of an alarming nature all piped into NSA facilities around the world. Surveillance was so broad in scope as to map the movement of everyone in a city by identifying emissions from cell phones computers and electric devices. When he moved assignments to a position as lead technologist in Hawai, Snowden learned that US metadata gathering was being piped into the Israeli intelligence network to allow Israel to monitor millions of phone calls and emails of Arabs and Palestinian Americans. He allude to that as ’..one of the biggest abuses we’ve seen.” This operation was reported last year by The Guardian, attributing Snowden as its source.
Edward Snowden was now at a critical juncture- as Senator Frank Church was decades before. He realized that the only way to curb the abuses of government was to expose them. But he didn’t have the power or exposure capability of a Senate committee’s subpoena power at his disposal. He would have to carry out his mission covertly, in keeping with his spy training. He was at the point of no return and recognized that whistleblowing was a traditional means of gaining appropriate attention and response in a situation. And, as the top technologist for the information-sharing office in Hawaii, he says, ’I had access to everything.” Given his outrage over government abuses he had no compunction about downloading and extracting all the confidential information he wanted.
By March 2013, then director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lied under oath to the American public and a Senate committee by saying that the NSA does not ’wittingly” collect information on millions of Americans. Snowden became more adamant in his plan. Conjuring up an image of a frog boiling to death-slowly, by degrees- but in the end dying nonetheless, he was determined not to be caught up in the government’s massive deception. He felt that, if left unchecked, the apparatus would grind inexorably out of control, consuming personal privacy and liberty with it. And so he leaked the documents to the world.
In the aftermath of the disclosures, Snowden has worries but not necessarily for himself though he is careful to take precautions to remain free. One concern is over what he calls NSA fatigue- the public becoming numb to the number of instances of government intrusion and mass surveillance. In his view, this atmosphere of government meddling, if not thwarted, will not be stopped by mere elections or changes in the governments stripe.
He sees the answer coming from the private sector in the form of better encryption. ’ By basically adopting changes like making encryption a universal standard-where all communications are encrypted by default- we can end mass surveillance not just in the US but around the world.” Until that time, Snowden says that revelations will keep coming. This has politicians and government types worried as there are still hundreds of thousands of pages of secret documents out there that may be attributed to Snowden’s efforts, to say nothing of other whistleblowers that he might have inspired.
This interview attests to the fact that Edward Snowden is still relevant despite the Obama administration’s attempts to marginalize him. It isn’t certain how the public views his actions in the light of a year in asylum. It will be interesting to see how, if at all, perceptions of him change over the next three years while he remains in exile. More important will be to monitor the reaction of the US government in response to future disclosures- disclosures which are bound to come.