While Wired’s sprawling feature story on Edward Snowden is both revelatory and fascinating, it’s also a reminder that it’s reasonable to hold conflicting views about him—both appreciation and disdain. For me, though, the story primarily reinforces the latter.
You can, for example, appreciate that Snowden exposed the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) warrantless searches of millions of emails and phone calls while at the same time wonder how handing over a trove of classified information—some of the same information Snowden claims the government had no business collecting— helps preserve or protect the freedoms that allegedly drove him to become a whistleblower in the first place. Maybe there is a convincing reason. But Snowden doesn’t offer one here.
A person can appreciate that whistleblowers often provide desirable transparency while also accepting that whistleblowing doesn’t put you above the law or make you an arbiter of its constitutionality. It doesn’t seem like Snowden understands this concept either.
You can be thankful that Snowden’s revelations sparked a (somewhat) serious debate regarding the scope of the Patriot Act, government surveillance, and the Fourth Amendment and also believe that handing sensitive intelligence to someone like Glenn Greenwald—a person ostensibly concerned with Constitution and sincerely concerned with embarrassing the United States— undermines his patriotic rhetoric.
In Wired’s story, James Bramford finds our hero, even in his early 20s, struggling with the morality of the world he operates in. When stationed in Geneva early in his career, Snowden had already ascertained that CIA agents were involved in what he found to be ethically compromising situations. Maybe they were. Maybe not. Either way, Snowden could have quit the CIA at that point and approached media outlets or written a book or described the abuses anonymously. He did not. Instead, he continued to climb the intelligence career ladder—a bright and technically gifted employee from all reports—even though he found the entire enterprise distasteful. Why?
It was only his political naiveté concerning the incoming president—“even Obama’s critics were impressed and optimistic about the values that he represented,” Snowden fantasizes in the piece —that stopped him from becoming a whistleblower even earlier.
Alas, Obama did not live up to his expectation, so …
‘If the government will not represent our interests,’ he says, his face serious, his words slow, ‘then the public will champion its own interests. And whistle-blowing provides a traditional means to do so.’
Yes, that is the traditional role of whistleblower. Flagging wrongdoing. For all the courage it takes to do what Snowden did, there is also a disturbing arrogance imbued in his perception of events. Because, despite what they may believe, neither Snowden nor Greenwald represents the public, “democracy,” or the public’s “interests.” We have debates, courts, political institutions, and constitutions to sort that out. Whistleblowers play an important role by helping uncover illicit activity, not by making themselves the new gatekeepers.
As Bamford notes “it is very likely that no one knows precisely what is in the mammoth haul of documents—not the NSA, not the custodians, not even Snowden himself.” Haphazardly purloining massive amounts of data, to the extent that not even you have a real understanding of what it entails, and then handing it to a few select media stars that you happen to agree with has nothing to do with democracy.
Or to put it another way: Why should the American people trust Greenwald or Laura Poitras to decide when and how sensitive information about the United States is disseminated? And if Snowden felt compelled to expose what was going on beyond the surveillance program, he could have chosen someone who doesn’t believe the United States is a terror state. What Greenwald engages in is ideological motivated journalism—just spend some time on his Twitter feed for your fill of half-baked Chomskyite idealism. There are dozens of media outlets that would have treated Snowden’s story more judiciously, thoroughly, and journalistically. And for all the legacy media’s faults, few would revel in chance to use the information to damage the United States. Now what we have are snippets of purportedly vital revelations, with information redacted and curated by Greenwald and a few others. That doesn’t sound like democracy to me.
The Wired story features a provocative cover of Snowden photographed embracing an American flag. “I care more about the country than what happens to me,” he claims. But the story only reminds us that Snowden has either shown a complete lack of judgment or has an ideological motivation that goes well beyond his stated reasons for betrayal. Surely it’s not paranoid to wonder why Snowden feels so welcome in Russia, for instance. It’s not the Russian secret police he fears, Snowden tells Bramford, but his “old employers, the CIA and the NSA.” For all our national ethical lapses, it never hurts to put our system into context. And Russia isn’t a terrible place to start if you want to examine what an illiberal state might look like. Snowden doesn’t seem particularly concerned—which, like many of his positions, is concerning.