Edward Snowden is a Spy: The Nagging Questions

At a certain point everything Edward Snowden says about his motives for revealing details of the secretive PRISM programme turn to mush.  We are at that point.

  1.  Although widely depicted in media as a young idealist, Snowden was a high school and army flop who found validation as an IT worker with the NSA and subsidiary contractors.  What did Mr Snowden, as David Brooks rightly asks, think NSA was—Catholic Relief Services?
  2. If Mr Snowden did know that NSA is involved in surveillance among its other remits, why was he shocked to discover things about its activities that even the general public has known since 2005 when a NYT article revealed that the FISA court often acted as a rubber stamp for government operations?  Court procedures have been extensively reviewed and amended since then, and dozens of requests have been rejected or modified before being granted: something else Mr Snowden must have known, or should have known.
  3. Snowden claims that his outrage over the PRISM program “grew over time,” though there is no indication there was a corresponding intensification of NSA’s operations within the program over the time he was with NSA: what he was doing on day one he was doing on his last day.  The sole reasonable explanation of his staying on was to continue to monitor the program and to gather information in a clandestine way—in short, to spy on the government with the intention of revealing information to third parties.  By one definition this is espionage, but by an older definition it is treason—a violation of an oath he swore to uphold and protect the Constitution.
  4. Why if Mr Snowden claims to care about free speech and privacy did he head for Hong Kong a few days before he was told by The Guardian and the Washington Post that the stories would be published? Why didn’t he stay in Hawaii and meet reporters on his front lawn?  Even today, no warrant for his arrest or extradition order  has been issued—which must be very disappointing to a wannabe martyr.  Imagine Christianity without Nero and lions.
  5.  Even if he is naïve enough to think that the relatively mild constraints on Hong Kong’s press make it the “envy of the world,”, successive reporters have marveled that China itself represents everything Mr Snowden claims to abhor: the iron fist of the state over the private interests of its citizens, and where internet privacy is a faraway dream.  As I sit at my computer, I cannot access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or my own rather innocent blog—the one you are reading—because with all other WordPress-based media it has come under fire as fueling anti-Chinese opinion.  On most days it is impossible to access Google except through various backdoors or sister sites, Google NZ being the most reliable and the one almost all Chinese use.
  6. Why did The Guardian choose for the date of the release of this information the window during which Mr Obama would be meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in California.  If this target was chosen by The Guardian specifically, to cause maximum impact and damage, then its chief reporter on the case, Glenn Greenwald, a man whose appetite for outrage rivals a Hussar’s for raw goat,  should be questioned about what he knows of Snowden’s connections to China.
  7. Despite his claims that he is in the game to out corruption and not to avoid prosecution, he is chiefly successful at hiding and giving interviews on the lam, shouting “I am not trying to avoid prosecution” from  undisclosed locations.
  8. Mr Snowden has, by all accounts, lied about the degree of access he (or anyone else at his clearance level) had to private information, conversations, and classified “secrets.” Perhaps it is possible even he thought he had this access.  He has now claimed provocatively that the PRISM program and NSA had hacked into Hong Kong and Chinese computer systems, with special reference to those of businessmen, universities, industry and students.  None of these targets as targets makes any sense, unless the real point of this mini-bomb is to get opinion in those communities to shift in his direction.  In short, Mr Snowden seems to be out of information and what he hasn’t already fabricated he is now making up on the run in order to create a protective smokescreen for himself. His quiver is empty and he is shooting imaginary arrows at everything and everyone.

It is a shame that words like “hero’ and “whistleblower” have been used of someone who is basically a tech-savvy social catastrophe. If there is a crime here, it is the fact that NSA hired him, trusted him, and trained him—that our security obsessed nation will scrape this low in the barrel to fill positions that require honesty, integrity and a commitment to the national interest. 

In fact, “national interest” is not a concept he appears to understand.  And it is true, the phrase can be used to disguise mischief. No government has ever claimed that what it was doing it was doing to abrogate the rights of its people.  But to accept Edward Snowden as a hero is to say that his understanding of national interest is superior to that of the government, and many of us aren’t nearly ready to accept that calculus. Governments like the United States choose their leaders; tyrannies do not.

I find it depressing that sales of Orwell’s 1984 have skyrocketed because of this rather smarmy interruption in our national life,  and that thousands of shoddy analogies will be made between NSA (or the American government) and Big Brother.  Orwell was writing about the rise of the technical, unrepresentative state.  He could not have anticipated (he died in 1950) the world of the real 1984 let alone the world beyond that.  In fact, nothing is more democratic that the internet culture that makes an Edward Snowden and his noxious ideas possible.  That is why real totalitarian states despise it and try to control it.

 I happen to believe that in a representative democracy government operates within the rule of law to achieve the national interest.  That is what people elect other people to do.  It is not a blank check.  There is a limit on the account. The people they elect are much like them—which, often, is not saying much for the quality of the parliaments we get, but we also get to move them in and out and remodel them in the long haul.  I would be very interested in knowing whether Mr Snowden voted in the last election, as his idol, Ron Paul, was not on the national ticket.

When Snowden enters the real China from the slightly irreal Hong Kong, he will live in a country without elections. Where government watches the moves of every internet user. Where surfing is unheard of, and “Page not Available” on English language sites is the most familiar message he is likely to find–because censors work 24-7 to edit, remove and control any stories unfavorable to the Party. The commemoration of Tiananmen Square last week was outlawed.  The relative of Nobel Laurate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to eleven years in prison on charges barely comprehensible—but endangering state security is the best translation.  Uighurs (Chinese Muslims in the far west of the country) have been killed by the hundreds in the last few years as they campaign for their civil rights.  Not hosed down, mind you: killed.  Mr Snowden comes from a country firmly fixed on its navel; these stories do not regularly appear in American media.  We are obsessed with the important things like tornadoes and Kim Kardashian’s fashion disasters.  But he now lives in a world where they do happen, all the time.

Tech savvy and bright as he may be, Chinese is a hard language to learn, and I wish Ed Snowden every success in mastering it.  Because now that his backpack and pockets are empty of saleable information, that’s the only way he will survive and he will be competing with millions of well-educated young Chinese men and women for jobs in his profession.  The hardest one to land, and the most prestigious? 政府审查中宣部–Government Censor for the Ministry of Propaganda.

19 thoughts on “Edward Snowden is a Spy: The Nagging Questions

  1. Orwell died in 1950, way after the end of WWII, not in 1943. Animal farm came out in 1946, and 1984 in 1949. Where did this “1943” date come from?

  2. Question 9 – People leak [information] all the time without going public. So why did he choose to go public when he claimed he didn’t want public attention on himself distracting attention from the information leaked? Answer – because he knew that the media would immortalise him. The would write his biography describing the ordinary kid turned super hero who had overcome the demon rulers of the world. The master sleuth. Just like in the video games… But just like Bush and his make believe WsMD (or ‘Weapons of Mass Tickling’ as we affectionately referred to them) some of us, and probably more of us the further down the globe you slide, never believed you, Teddy Snowden. There are no heros except those infallible heros in fiction.

  3. It’d be wonderful if Martin Luther King wasn’t a philanderer. It’d be fabulous if Dorothy Day wasn’t a weird anarchist. It’d be marvellous if Julian Assange wasn’t a paranoid self-important arsehole.

    Unlike the Greeks, our heroes are real, not legendary. Real people have flaws and failings. Indeed, you probably need to have a few flaws to go against the machine.

    We get the heroes we’re given. We should probably be grateful that we get any at all.

  4. NSA didn’t hire him. Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton-it’s just fired him- which is in turn majority owned by the Carlyle Group, which is an investment fund.

    I appreciate that you know a great deal more than I do about many things, but when it comes to investment funds I am probably rather better equipped than you are. The purpose of an investment fund is exceedingly simple; it’s to make money wherever and whenever it can, in order to maximise returns to its investors, wherever and whoever those investors are. In Carlyle’s case that extends to numerous activities over six continents, and it defines its mission as ‘inspiring the confidence and loyalty of its investors’.

    You will note the complete absence of any reference to any one privileged country on those six continents whose interests would override those of the fund’s investors.

    Incidentally, Snowden does not appear to have been paid for spilling the beans, so you should add the fact that he has clearly failed to take on board the business ethos to your catalogue of his shortcomings. After that you could give some thought to the possibility that your country might be better served by people whose mission is to serve their country…

      • Steph,

        No, I didn’t suggest that Snowden was someone whose mission was to serve his country; quite the reverse. Snowden was the employee of a company which requires its employees to serve it, for the benefit of the people who derive income from the investment fund which is the majority owner of the company, thus adhering to its mission statement. The master servant relationship which defines the status of an employee does not allow any loyalties beyond it; obviously so, since it would not then be a master servant relationship.

        I should, perhaps, declare an interest here; before I retired, in order to spend more time with my doctors, I was a public servant. It’s pretty straightforward; public servants have one duty, which is to serve the public. In England that meant I was a servant of the Crown; my authority derived from the fact that, once I had spent five years passing exceedingly difficult exams, I held the Queen’s Warrant. I’ve still got it knocking around the place somewhere.

        I was hired by the Crown, trained by the Crown and trusted by the Crown to fulfil my duties. I could, of course, have made a great deal of money by going to work for a large accountancy and/or legal firm, since my knowledge was, and I suppose still is, an extremely valuable commodity. I didn’t do so because I became a public servant in order to serve the public.

        A couple of weeks back my former husband received an OBE for ‘Services to Tax Compliance’. He had spent years investigating a highly complex tax avoidance scheme, and further years litigating it through the Courts here, against what seemed to be very unfavourable odds. Nevertheless, he won 7-0 in the Supreme Court, and well over £1 billion came into the Exchequer as a result.

        In the world of investment trusts an employee who brings in well over £1 billion is rewarded with a great deal of money. When a public servant does it here then the most s/he gets is a gong; sadly Buckingham Palace does not provide refreshments.

        The USA has chosen to dispense with the concept of public service; it’s paying the price. I am merely pointing out that actions have consequences; Snowden’s behaviour is one of the consequences…

      • Stevie,

        Thank you for your clarification. I’m wasn’t sure what you were leading to at the end of your first comment but it makes perfect sense to me now. I’m sorry for misunderstanding (and reassured that it was a misunderstanding). Thank you also for your further valuable insight. It is very much appreciated here and I fully concur with your assessment.

      • That first article says: “For this, some […] are hailing him as a hero and a whistle-blower. He is neither. He is, rather, a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.”

        I’m not sure why he can’t be all of the above. The Greek hero Jason (of Argonautica fame) was a narcissist, and a murderer, and a thief, and a traitor (certainly as far as Medea was concerned).

      • I’m sure Teddy Snowden would be delighted with the extraordinary analogy you draw decourse although he might still prefer one with Jesus as martyr. Personally I see no similarities without stretching the imagination to snapping point, not to mention the fact that this is not myth but the real world despite Snowden’s own lack of sense of that reality. I agree with the article that he is neither a hero nor a whistle-blower.

      • My point, such that it is, is that neither grandiosity, nor narcissism, nor a martyr complex, nor having broken your employment contract, nor having broken the law are sufficient by themselves to prevent you from being a hero.

        I don’t know if he’s a “hero” or not, but what I do know is that he’s done the American public (and the world at large) a great service. It would be nice if he’d had better motives, or done it in a slightly different way, or chosen a different country to abscond to, or any number of other things had been different.

        It’s easy to pinpoint, after the event, everything he did wrong, apparently from the day he was born. But are we surprised that this is the sort of person who becomes a whistleblower?

        Julian Assange spent most of his childhood on the run from his stepfather who was a member of a predatory cult. Bradley Manning was struggling with his sexual orientation in the environment of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Imperfect people are exactly the sort of people who can end up going against the system.

      • There was no need to explain to me decourse. Disagreement doesn’t necessarily indicate misunderstanding. I disagreed with your point…. While those things don’t prevent someone being considered a hero, they don’t make Snowden a hero to me or to the authors of the articles. That was my point. I never suggested a hero should be perfect or obedient. What hero in mythology would fit that definition? As an egalitarian and as a typical Kiwi whose empathy sits more comfortably with the self critical underdog, I find the concept of hero slightly disgusting and the idea that Snowden did his country or anyone else other than himself, a great service, erroneous.

      • Fair enough, steph. I understand your reluctance about the word “hero”; as I said, I don’t know if I’d call Snowden a hero or not.

        But I guess we can agree to disagree on whether or not he performed a public service. I’m grateful for the leak, even if the motives for leaking were bad or mixed.

      • I thought everybody knew. Bush was doing it – accumulating all information in a data bank, and he didn’t have to obtain a court order to investigate further. So now Obama is doing it but must obtain the court order etc etc. I think Snowden is probably extraordinarily naïve but anyway I thought this interesting, or amusing… for your entertainment: professional profilers evaluate his public statements for clues to his psyche. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/06/11/the-mind-of-leaker-edward-snowden-an-armchair-analysis.html

    • Stevie, I spent six months as a public servant in Australia, doing something very similar to what your former husband did. I worked for federal prosecutors, and played a (very small) part in getting money back from those who had defrauded the government, and from those who were convicted of serious crimes but had hidden their assets well.

      I am not going to say that my time was perfect. The culture of the agency I worked for was not a good fit for me (that’s why I only lasted six months), and I did see a lot of resources wasted in inefficient bureaucracy.

      I did not see anything which violated the law as I understood it, or my conscience. Everything I saw was within the law and in the service of the public interest. It could possibly have been done more efficiently, but the job is important, and the job got done. The only people we went after were those we had good reason to believe had done something wrong, whether it was something small like defrauding the welfare system, or something huge like money laundering or trafficking drugs.

      As one former public servant to another, I’d like to know what would you have done if you discovered something that was clearly illegal or clearly unconscionable. What if it detracted from the mission of the department? What if, in your opinion, it violated some fundamental precept of good government, or some basic expectation that the public has of their government in a democratic society?

      As I noted elsewhere, I think you need to be a bit weird to go against the system, especially in a spectacular way. Well-adjusted, well-housetrained people don’t do that. They get out and find a different job, or they live with the banality of evil one way or another. Either way, they rarely change anything.

      • Well, following the trial of Clive Ponting for leaking information to the MP Tam Dalyel regarding the sinking of the Belgrano, a system was put into place whereby a civil servant could leapfrog his or her own department to consult the Cabinet Secretary where s/he believed s/he was being asked to do something contrary to good conscience and the public interest.

        That’s the good bit. They also altered the Official Secrets legislation to define the public interest as more or less meaning whatever the government of the day said it was, though there is some doubt as to whether it would stick. The judge in Ponting’s trial had instructed the jury that it was already the legal position, and thus Ponting was guilty. Ponting himself had expected to be convicted, and the jury found him not guilty. The proceedings of jurors are secret so no one will ever know why Ponting was acquitted.

        There is also the Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998, enacted some 13 years later, which applies to Civil Servants (though not those in the security services) as well as employees of businesses etc.

        No-one has ever suggested that a government could decide that breaking the law was in the public interest; after all, Parliament enacts the law and if a particular government doesn’t like that law then it must muster a majority in Parliament to change that law. The Cabinet Secretary is very well aware of that fact; it is the cornerstone of our unwritten Constitution.

        This is why our government has fervently denied that any of our intelligence services are doing what the US is doing; we have not yet reached the point where our politicians can decide that the foundations of our civilisation must be destroyed in order to save it, and with luck we never will.

        Of course, we have a rather longer history of getting stroppy with our rulers, people of modest means can become members of Parliament, and we have no President, all of which makes the situation here radically different to that in the USA.

        But I must disappoint you as to the chances of my having to endure the banality of evil; I certainly came across it but it wasn’t, as it were, on my side….

      • Oh, yes, I’m reminded of the verb coined (or possibly just reported) by Yes, Minister: “to pont”.

        I’m not accusing you of anything, and especially not shirking your duty to the law and to the public. I am certainly glad that you had an institutional mechanism to handle wrongdoing should the unthinkable ever happen.

  5. What a sad time in western history. I think were victims of success. We have a cadre of youths that expect to be revolutionary heroes in comfort and style. All of our OWS, Tea Party, Libertarians, Anarchist,…blah-blah-blah, are engaging in this weird fantasy that they are fighting the secret evils of the “Matrix” as a way to give purpose to lives that seem pointless when compared to those that stormed the beaches of Normandy or marched on Washington with MLK. Not that our world doesn’t have real problems, but solving them would take sacrifice and travel beyond the comforts of home. I always cringe when these types try to draw a comparison between what they are doing and what the kids are doing in Turkey or Egypt.

    Regarding Snowden, I think he may have errored in his choice of exiles. Since the Chinese don’t really care about whatever he imagines his cause to be, I suspect that once they get what information they want from him they will start haggling with the US over the price for returning him. Do we have any Chinese spies they might want back?

    I think another question to ask is what is being done to keep obvious flakes like Snowden and Manning from having access to thousands of classified documents?

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