Let’s give Edward Snowden his due: He did himself a lot of good in his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, which aired last night. He presents well, coming across as earnest, thoughtful and intelligent. There is no manic gleam in his eye, no evident hatred of his country. He is well-spoken and articulate. He presents his own case more compellingly than does Glenn Greenwald, who speaks with a barely-suppressed rage much of the time—and an altogether unsuppressed hostility all of the time. Snowden, by contrast, is cool and measured, his affect cerebral. Where Greenwald and Julian Assange talk about NSA as an evil monolith, Snowden talks about how he misses his former colleagues, whom he regards as good people. He gamely objects to their vilification. I have no doubt that his performance will move many viewers, who will see—as he clearly does—nobility in his sacrifices, purity in his motives, and honor in his decision to defy the law in some larger defense of morality as he sees it.
Yet I was unmoved by Snowden’s performance.
My stony indifference to his earnest self-account was not because his interview was insubstantial. It wasn’t. Indeed, Snowden raised at least two important factual matters that warrant clarification by his former agency—one of which NSA addressed today. The first is that NSA has repeatedly described Snowden as a former systems administrator, a kind of tech-support guy who helped manage computers for the agency. Snowden, by contrast, describes himself as a cyber-spy, a claim Greenwald also advances in his recent book. The disparity is at least a little bit important as it goes to the question of exactly what sort of person did this. Was the problem one of a disaffected support staffer who took matters into his own hands or was it that NSA was betrayed by one of its own operatives? It also goes to the question of how much Snowden can reasonably claim to know about the agency’s substantive work—whom it targets, how, and why. And it thus goes also to the question of credibility. Is the government downplaying Snowden’s role to diminish his credibility or is he padding his resume to enhance it?
Second and more importantly, Snowden in this interview directly challenged NSA’s claim that he had never raised his concerns internally. This claim has been crucial to the government’s dismissal of Snowden as a legitimate whistleblower. Yet Snowden says he raised his concerns by email more than once. The government announced that it had found only one such email, which it released today and which does not remotely suggest whistleblowing. The exchange, rather, reflects a routine inquiry about the relationship between executive orders and statutes—one to which a lawyer responded appropriately. Again, one side or the other is going to emerge with egg on its face. If this brief email exchange—which took place long after Snowden was already exfiltrating documents from the agency—is what Snowden means by raising his concerns internally, his effort was laughable. On the other hand, if more material were ever to turn up that actually supported Snowden’s claims, it would seriously undermine the government’s credibility concerning his internal behavior before he left Hawaii.
However important these questions are, they are not ultimately the matters that will determine what we should think of Snowden. And on the more important issues, Snowden—earnestness and all—utterly failed to explain certain stubborn, inconvenient facts that make it hard to accept him as the figure he claims to be. Some of these facts he did not challenge at all, as they are too clearly true to brook contest. Some he challenged only weakly. And some Williams did not bother to ask him about at all. The result is a haze over the noble portrait the fugitive paints of himself.
Let’s start with the fact that Snowden ran. Greenwald spends a good deal of space in his book (which I reviewed the other day) describing how deeply at peace Snowden was with the likelihood of spending a very long time in prison. The early church martyrs were not more blissfully resigned to their suffering than was the Snowden of Greenwald’s book—a man whose freedom, indeed, whose very life, was as nothing compared with the public’s need to know the government’s interpretation of Section 215 and its compromise of Angry Birds. Yet Snowden did not, after all, return to face the consequences of his stand. He has evaded law enforcement for a year. And his explanation of that evasion is, well, hardly that of a brave man.
You see, Snowden explains in the interview, the law he violated doesn’t allow the defense he would want to put on. So he’d likely be convicted and serve a very long prison sentence—to which we learn he is not quite so eager to subject himself as Greenwald once admiringly thought. Snowden, of course, explains that he has an entirely selfless reason for not wanting to spend decades in prison. It’s not that he fears it, you understand. But it might scare other whistleblowers out of following his example. Whatever the reason, when push came to shove, Snowden chose not to martyr himself but to flee.
And where did flee? He ran to Moscow. On this point, Snowden’s explanation is particularly obtuse. Ask the State Department why he’s there, Snowden suggests. He was just trying to transit through Russia. It wasn’t his fault that he got stuck in Moscow; this happened because the U.S. government revoked his passport.
The passport revocation is not, in fact, why Snowden is stuck in Moscow. For one thing, the government revoked Snowden’s passport before he ever left Hong Kong. Moreover, it does not mean that he must stay in Moscow. It’s at most the reason why he has a choice between remaining in Moscow and coming back to the United States and facing arrest and lacks the option of finding non-Russian safe haven. Hechooses, in other words, to remain in Moscow because he prefers the protection of the dictator there to trial at the hands of his own government.
We should add that he treats this dictator with remarkable kid gloves for a foe of tyranny and surveillance. The words “Ukraine” and “Crimea” do not pass his lips in this interview. Nor do the words “Pussy Riot” or the names of any dissidents who face real repression at the hands of his hosts. Nor, for that matter, does he dwell on Russian surveillance practices, though he notes the professionalism of the Russian intelligence services. He acknowledges that it’s a little uncomfortable to be in Russia at this particular time, but his only specific criticism of his host government is a relatively bland one about the country’s new blogging law.
Snowden, to be sure, denies that he has any kind of relationship with Russian intelligence. He did not bring any documents to Russia, he insists, and he has no access to his stash remotely. He is not paid by Russian intelligence. And he has never been interviewed by the FSB. Even if all of this is true, his larger point is not. He is, at this stage, not a free agent but a tool of Russian intelligence—and of Putin himself—even if he doesn’t know it. He is in the country because his presence embarrasses the United States and because his disclosures serve Russian interests. He is doing things there that help Russia and he is refraining from doing things that offend his hosts. People without some kind of relationship with the security services simply don’t find themselves calling in and throwing softball questions to Vladimir Putin on Russian television. And people without some kind of relationship with the security services also don’t tend to have as their lawyers for asylum Kremlin loyalists who also happen to be members of the FSB’s oversight board.
And then there’s Snowden’s denials that he did any damage. Show me the evidence, he protests, that anyone was really hurt by anything he did—and Williams does not call him on the point. But it’s a mug’s game to acquit oneself of doing harm by simply defining all of the harms one does as goods. If one calls democratic debate and sunshine the blowing of sensitive intelligence programs in which one’s country has invested enormous resources and on which it relies for all sorts of intelligence collection, the exposure is of course harmless. If one regards as a salutary exercise the exposure of one’s country’s offensive intelligence operations and capabilities to the intelligence services of adversary nations, then of course that exposure does no harm. And if one regards the many billions of dollars American industry has lost as merely a fair tax on its sins for having cooperated with NSA, then sure, no harm there either.
Snowden is too smart to actually believe that he did no harm to the U.S. What he means, rather, is that he regards harms to U.S. intelligence interests as good things much of the time and that he reserves for himself the right to define which harms are goods and which harms are real harms.
And this brings us to Snowden’s ultimate arrogance, the thing that makes his calm certainty finally more infuriating than anything else: He believes he is above the law. He believes he should get to decide what stays secret and what does not. He believes that he should get to decide what laws he can and cannot be tried under. He believes he gets to decide what rules should govern spying. And he not only believes he should get credit for civil disobedience without being willing to face the legal consequences of his actions, he believes he should get credit for courage as though he had done so as well.
As I say, I am unmoved.
Benjamin Wittes is a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.This piece was cross-posted at Lawfare.