Is he a hero or a villain? Patriot or traitor? Edward Snowden, in a recent exclusive TV interview, sought to clarify his image to the world and expressed a desire to not live in exile but, under the right circumstances come back to the U.S. Along the way he delivers a blow to the Obama administration and debunks many of the myths surrounding his disclosures and his flight from the US. In a wide-ranging and revealing interview with NBC-TV’s Nightly News host Brian Williams, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden talks about the global impact and debate sparked by his revelations.
The five hour interview was conducted amid secrecy, as might be expected in a posh Moscow hotel after months of preparation. When asked during the interview if he saw himself as a patriot, he responded, “I do.” Read on and you can judge for yourself.
After reading this account it will become clear that Snowden was not a “low-level hacker” as characterized by President Barack Obama. In fact, he played a much larger role in the mass surveillance controversy. But the administration’s portrayal of him as a mere role player in the scheme of things is typical of the spin employed by politicians to avoid embarrassment, deflect attention and escape responsibility. In fact it appears that recent statements from Secretary of State, John Kerry, were timed to coincide with the airing of this interview.
In his comments, Kerry challenged Snowden to make his case before the American people in the US, not hiding out in Russia. Snowden revealed in the interview that he did not plan on staying in Russia-that he was headed to Latin America when the US pulled his passport and stranded him at the airport in Moscow. Moreover, he then revealed that talks have been under way for some time which might result in his return to the US.
The Administration’s attempts to disparage Snowden is a classic Beltway ploy which Snowden pushed back against in reiterating his role as more than that of just a pawn. Indeed, the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) supported Snowden’s statements that he was ’trained as a spy” and offered technical expertise to high levels of government. This included giving lectures at a counterintelligence academy for the DIA and doing undercover work for the CIA and the NSA. Snowden said that terms to denigrate his service as merely being a low-level systems administrator were ’misleading”.
In reality, in the DIA assignment he said ’he developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.” In this capacity Snowden was employed by Dell and Booz Allen, private companies who contracted with the government agencies.
While working for the contractors, he downloaded up to 1.7 million secret documents about US intelligence-gathering and partnerships with foreign allies. Some documents revealed massive data collection by the agencies of US telephone records and internet activity. Among the leaks, aside from data of US users, was the disclosure of spying on personal communications of foreign leaders and the tapping of undersea fiber-optic cables to siphon data. The United States charged him with espionage. In revoking his passport the US government doomed him to temporary asylum in Russia- his last stop before the passport was revoked inhibiting him from travelling further. His original goal was to reach Latin America via Cuba.
But why flee to other countries? Isn’t that treasonous behavior after the leak of classified documents? Shouldn’t Snowden sought means of redress of illegal government activities in the US? In his defense he said he tried to go through channels before leaking the documents to journalists but met a bureaucratic stone wall. He was told to stop asking questions. Afraid and frustrated, he turned to the only alternative he felt remained- fleeing and leaking the information. Two US officials confirmed yesterday that Snowden did send at least one email to the NSA’s office of general counsel posing a policy and legal question. It could not be determined what, if any, response there was.
Barraged with questions and criticism over this debacle, the Obama administration has appointed a review panel that criticized the NSA’s data collection, and in March the President recommended ending bulk domestic metadata collection. Obama has also had to deal with sharp criticism from leaders of allied nations about foreign data collection and snooping which has strained relations with them. Last week the House passed a bill to end the NSA’s bulk domestic metadata gathering.
In less than a month, the one year anniversary of Snowden’s asylum in Russia will be here. Perhaps the recent machinations are occurring because of that. Of his asylum in Russia and his travel restrictions due to an invalid passport, Snowden muses, ’ I may have lost my ability to travel but I have gained the ability to go to sleep at night and put my head on the pillow and feel comfortable that I’ve done the right thing even when it was the hard thing. And I’m comfortable with that.”
As for the patriot question, he said ’…being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritizing service to the government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the violations and encroachments of adversaries.” Couched in these words is the suggestion that the adversaries are within the government.
Edward Snowden’s lawyers have been in discussion with the Justice Department about his predicament. It is telling that he is no longer absolutely viewed as a traitor or some low-level miscreant. A deal could be reached, it is reported, if it included amnesty, clemency or a short prison sentence. The discussions are in the very early stages but it looks like the Administration wants to avoid the blow-back from this debacle and wants the decks cleared for the mid-term election cycle. Snowden has said that, absent a deal, he would not voluntarily return home to face trial.
Trial or no trial, the jury is still out- the jury of public opinion that is. Is Edward Snowden a patriot or someone seeking to get rich from his leaks and subsequent celebrity? One thing is certain as more information is disclosed. This is not just a small time sideshow, but a complex drama. Politics will continue to play a decisive role in the weeks and months ahead.