Contrary to my normal inclinations and following the historic NBC interview with the most controversial figure in the history of U.S. intelligence, I feel a need to express my initial impressions of Edward Snowden. Prior to the interview I had bought into the NSA’s description of Snowden as a young and relatively inexperienced computer hacker. I pictured him as someone who was trying to get attention and perhaps, somehow, make some money for himself. The interview changed my opinion.
Clearly, we have not heard the end of this story. Snowden says there is much more to come in terms of revelations, and the press is still awash with the international repercussions of his actions. But, for what it’s worth, my impressions:
1. Snowden is an idealist and it seems likely that he did what he did because of his convictions and not for aggrandizement. He seems to have forfeited his citizenship and his connections to his family and culture on behalf of ideals. One could compare, as he apparently does, his behavior to the same kind of treason committed by the founders against the British government over three centuries ago.
2. He was bright, poised and articulate in the interview and his mien lends credibility to his claim that he was advancing rapidly in the NSA organizational structure. His body language was assured, not defensive. His speech is not that of a youth, but of an experienced man. At 30, he is about the age of an O-3 (Lieutenant in the Navy), which is a responsible age. He now meets the minimum age requirement for senator in Congress.
3. His side of the story appears to be consistent with the facts as published thus far in the press. Notably, the NSA has pushed back on one of his assertions that he actually did try to express some of his legal concerns through emails, but of course it’s hard to prove a negative, i.e., that there weren’t other emails. In any case, anyone who has ever worked for a bureaucracy knows the fate of one who rocks the boat.
4. He has really angered the government, including, prominently, Secretary of State John Kerry, who has called him not just a traitor, but a “coward”, I presume for declining to come home to be tried on charges. Whether Snowden is a traitor or not is an unresolved legal question, but I see no evidence that he’s a coward. I think it’s naive for anyone to suggest that he “come home to face the music” and be tried for his crimes, especially since the law enables his former employer to classify its side of the story. He would be naive to do it.
5. I believe that the rule of law is essential to a properly functioning democracy, and by that standard, Snowden is clearly an outlaw. However, classification, as I and many others have discussed in these blogs, has been abused as long as there have been wars. Then too, there has been the explosion of secrecy and hidden budgets so well documented in the book, “Top Secret America” under the rubric of 9/11 fear. I have to wonder, is Snowden the only person to actually try to do something about unbridled bureaucracy and secret budgets?
6. Snowden has staked out his position and made it clear that he’s in this for principle. Whether he will be judged by history a traitor or patriot is an open question as far as I’m concerned. What will history eventually say?
7. NBC scored a major scoop with this interview. I am chagrinned to observe that the CBS News said not a word about it tonight. I don’t know about ABC. Maybe they’re both working on it?
I have not seen the NBC interview yet. Based on the various articles and brief interviews I have seen, I am in agreement with you about his sincerity and motivations. In the recent two weeks we watched Frontline on PBS. It was an in depth review of the secrecy and growth of the NSA from its early days. It grew significantly during the George W years in particular under Dick Cheney’s direction.
The most disturbing part of this story is how it grew so much under strict wraps of secrecy. It was assumed the public should know nothing about it. I think that is wrong. I understand the need to gather useful information with high technology today. Given the potential for terrible acts of terrorism, I am willing to accept quite a lot of gathering of information about my phone and internet use. I don’t accept being left in the dark about it. This policy is one the public should be able to discuss.
That goes for me as well, Jim. The book I mentioned in the post, “Top Secret America”, also detailed the explosive, secret growth of both the intelligence bureaucracies (and it is plural), and the NSA itself. It’s a double-danger, the secrecy and the run-away, out-of-control budgets. Isn’t it ironic that this happened on the watch of a conservative GOP president? As for being “kept in the dark”, I view classified national security as like a chain with vulnerable links. There are doubtless thousands of well-intentioned and hard-working Americans doing all they can to protect us, but when secrecy reigns there is no correcting mechanism to keep a weak link from cracking.
More information is available at Democracy now.
Thanks for these additions, Jeff. The power of the system is mind-boggling.
I didn’t see the interview, but don’t consider him a patriot because patriots don’t run and hide. That said, are his “revelations” worthy of discussion? Absolutely.
I would agree, Frank, if all patriots had the full protection of the constitution, including the right to a public hearing and a fair trial. Would Snowden have that? Actually, I believe him when he says he wouldn’t. Under the law, whistle-blowers in the intelligence system do not have the same rights as in other systems and those who have tried have fared very badly. Secondly, when I consider the power of secrecy I find myself thinking of Orwell’s powerful novel, 1984. Understand, I am not advocating clemency or forgiveness for Snowden. He broke the law with full knowledge of the penalties, and therefore, the personal sacrifice involved. But at this point I am willing to consider that the term “patriot” might still apply. Daniel Ellsberg articulated this point well.
Glad you joined the discussion, Frank.
It’s interesting how just a small change in perspective can give a different view of the situation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
I don’t think you and I agree on this one, my friend.
Beyond the fact that he has presented himself as a sincere person who was trying to do right by his country but who won’t see it through legally (however tough that might be for him), there are three points that I would make in response to your thoughtful post about Snowden:
1. Snowden has done tremendous damage to our national security. James Clapper has called the damage “massive.” Just one example: Stewart Baker (former assistant secretary at Homeland Security under Bush) makes the case that Snowden aided authoritarian regimes all over the world by revealing certain intelligence-gathering techniques that they did not know were possible. And it wasn’t necessary for him to reveal all of the things he did, even to make his point about the surveillance state. As Baker points out, Snowden could have limited the damage he did and still made the same point (a point, by the way, that doesn’t have much force for me because I assumed the government was busy gathering electronic data on foreign interactions with Americans and had the ability to access any domestic communication; these things were known by various members of Congress and it was Congress who gave Bush-Cheney the enhanced authority).
2. Snowden says that, “People have unfairly demonized the NSA, to an unnecessary extreme.” Huh? He’s surprised at that? Glenn Greenwald has it as his life’s purpose these days to demonize and destroy the NSA, and Snowden is his means of doing that. If he wants to stop the demonization, he needs to cut his ties with Greenwald. Bet he never does that, though.
3. He claims he was “surprised” that he ended up in Russia. That it was the U.S. government’s fault that he is there. Huh? What did he expect the government to do? Allow him to retire comfortably and do his ongoing leaking of classified material from Rio de Janiero? He is pretty naive if he didn’t expect the government to revoke his passport and seek his extradition. The man committed a crime, for God’s sake, and he knew he committed a crime. We all know he committed a crime. That’s not up for debate. What is up for debate is whether his crime is justifiable. And until he faces justice in the United States, we will never know, will we?
As to the the problem of Snowden not facing the legal music, please see my reply to Frank’s comment.
1. Clapper and others claim “massive” damage, but the assertion lacks specifics from what I’ve heard. Admittedly, specifics are hard to come by simply because of the secrecy involved. But I would ask you to consider the danger of allowing a massive network of loosely-connected and redundant intelligence agencies to operate under a chief (Clapper) who has no official power over their individual budgets and without supervision save a very small number of Congress who are very likely attached hip and thigh to the industries and contractors they are supposed to regulate. It makes me uncomfortable, to say the least.
2. Demonize the NSA? Again, please see my comments to Frank. I’m sure there are many, many good people doing good work, but secrecy is the problem.
3. “Surprised that he ended up in Russia.” I hate to say it but I think the administration screwed up big time when it cancelled Snowden’s passport. It pains me to realize that I’m agreeing with Putin, for god’s sake. But wouldn’t it be easier to track and capture Snowden in a country with which we have an extradition treaty than China or Russia? I’m looking at a list of such treaties now and it looks to me like we have one with virtually all the countries in South America, including Brazil. Russia and China of course are not on the list.
Finally, I’m not sure you fully understood my intention in this post. I’m not ready to render any final judgement to the Snowden affair. I simply wanted to express my surprise that Snowden seemed so different from what I had assumed, and as I said, there is more to come.
Perhaps I did misunderstand your intention, Jim. I recognized you weren’t passing any final judgments, but it seemed like, mainly because of how I interpreted the fact that you didn’t discuss any of the damage his leaks have done, you had your thumb on the scale supporting what he did. My bad.
Just a short response to your points:
1. Granted, it all makes me uncomfortable, too. I just can’t figure out any way, any effective way, that is, to have a modern intelligence-gathering apparatus without a) secrecy and b) relying on “a very small number of Congress” to ultimately oversee what is going on. I have decided to live with the discomfort and hope that a bipartisan Congress (whoever the president happens to be) and a judicious court system are carefully watching what is going on. I will say, though, that I am even more uncomfortable that a large number of Americans don’t seem to mind that our intelligence-gathering capabilities, to some degree or another, were compromised by someone who swore to keep them secret.
2. We just disagree about the levels of secrecy, I suppose. For me, when it comes to these things, a lack of secrecy is a bigger problem, at least as I see it now. (Like you, more information can change my mind.)
3. I don’t know if the timing of the passport revocation was accidental or not. But I do know it serves the purpose, at least for now, of preventing a messy extradition battle and any subsequent and controversial effort to try Snowden. In other words, having Snowden in Russia is beneficial for the Administration, in political terms and in terms of offending the Democratic base (some of whom sound like right-wing Obama-haters on this issue).
You pretty well set out what my feelings were after seeing the NBC telecast. Questions still abound, as they no doubt will while this story is kept alive by the press. And Glenn Greenwald will be right there among ‘em – with a bullhorn I’m sure.
I don’t know if you saw it or not, but PBS broadcast a Frontline series, “The United States of Secrets,” that aired May 13th (Part 1) and May 20th (Part 2). You can find it online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/united-states-of-secrets/.
The 3 hour show gives a really good overview of the whole spying thing since 9/11. Of special interest, to me anyway, is how the feds have treated whistle blowers. The 2 guys they traced actually did follow procedures and went up the chain of command. As a result, they were threatened with criminal charges, and eventually lost their jobs, along with their pensions. That’s what happens when you follow the rules in a world of secrets. I think Snowden may have seen those actions as a real possibility for him. And that’s why he’s now a man without a country and living, ironically, in a country which is not very keen on the free press, much less free speech.
That brings up another point that I didn’t hear addressed in Snowden’s interview. Why haven’t the Russians sought him out for questioning? Should we believe him if he says they’ve left him alone? I sense there is something rotten in Denmark, er, Russia.
As expected, there is a lot of sky-is-falling rhetoric coming from the Feds. Sec. Kerry was pretty outraged pre-interview, but had retreated somewhat post-interview. But I felt Snowden was truthful in his answers to Brian Williams. If he’s a liar, he’s damn good at it.
Another concern raised during the interview is that Snowden has apparently given his estimated 1.7 million secret documents to Glenn Greenwald et al. So, if Greenwald and company publish something that is truly harmful from this cache of secrets, Snowden can at least dodge any direct (but not indirect) responsibility. So, all we’ve got to do now is trust the press with the records.
Meanwhile the legal issues continue. At least one court has ruled that the NSA’s metadata collection program is unconstitutional. And there are some constitutional questions regarding certain provisions of the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and the Espionage Act, along with the 1st, 4th, 5th, 9th, and 14th amendments. As a result, some observers have said that Snowden could not get a fair trial until these legal issues were resolved. But by the time that happens, Snowden should be fluent in Russian – or dead.
Ultimately, it seems to come down to the dilemma of whether our liberty is more important than our security; Benjamin Franklin notwithstanding.
(Note to NSA: If you’re reading this, please understand that this is just a game. We call it “Snowden Ping-Pong.” You know, like we just bounce Snowden’s guilt and patriotism back and forth. It’s all a joke. Really it is.)
Good points, Herb. I suspect the Frontline telecast is probably the same one mentioned by Jim in IA in his comment below. I’m also glad you mentioned the fates of the other whistle-blowers. That was in the news so long ago now that I’d forgotten the details until you reminded me.
“Why haven’t the Russians sought him out for questioning?” It is hard to believe all right, but Snowden sounds credible on the point, especially when he points out that he took not so much as a thumb drive with him to China or Russia. Clearly, he had thought this out. That he didn’t plan his physical escape as well I can only attribute to the fact that there are only a handful of countries with which we have no good relations and extradition treaties.
Finally, I like your summary sentence:
That’s always been the problem with national security classification. Who will watch the watchers?
Just a few things.
1. It seems like what happened to those two guys was preferable to what has happened to Snowden. Absent any deal between federal prosecutors and Snowden’s lawyers (they have reportedly communicated with each other), it appears he will not be able to call the U.S. his home again, without subjecting himself to a trial or plea deal.
2. You brought up what few people are talking about: Greenwald, if we are to read between the lines of Snowden’s claim, is at least partially in charge of future document releases. Given Greenwald’s inability to be objective in this case, that is definitely a concern.
3. You mentioned “a fair trial.” I have been amazed at how many liberals (I’m not talking about you, obviously; and I’m not even considering the response of conservatives) are quick to distrust our justice system, when it comes to adjudicating violations of, say, the Espionage Act. And I certainly don’t understand why people don’t think the government can give him a fair trial on the issue of stealing government property. That seems fairly straightforward to me.
I didn’t see the interview, Jim, but your impressions of Snowden based on it are comparable to what I thought about him in the first weeks after his story broke. And that would be my impression based on initial press reports, not the story after the U.S. government started putting its spin on it. I think he did the country a tremendous service by exposing the NSA overreach. After all, how else would we ever know about it? I just can’t decide now what I think should happen to him as a result of all this. After all, he’s no saint. And there are a few questions hanging, like, did he really work overseas undercover for the CIA and NSA, or was he just another experienced NSA computer operator with high level clearance?
@ Duane: The government basically told us they could and would access any communications between foreigners and Americans. What they did not say was that they would also access all communications between Americans and Americans, right here at home. We had a right to expect that wouldn’t be done, but of course, since they had the ability to do so, they went ahead and did it. It’s that sort of abuse of power that Snowden exposed and although I’m not sure what’s going to be done about it, if anything, I’m damned grateful he did it.
To your valid point about the citizen’s right to privacy, I happened to idly google myself last night and was surprised at what popped up. There actually wasn’t much on me, just a reference to my blog and to a technical paper I once wrote on aerospace batteries. But some company which, obviously, makes a living diving for internet dirt had highlighted my wife’s name, which also popped up, and was slyly implying that for a fee they could divulge a bunch of information about her, including any criminal justice records. (Mollie is hardly a felon, but she did get a ticket about ten or fifteen years ago for changing lanes without signaling.)
But I did get up to a point on their web site where it was clear they had her address, phone number, and referenced to previous addresses where we lived in Massachusetts. I quit when they asked for my credit card number – they wanted about $9.95 per month, apparently assuming I would have some continuing need for this stuff.
Maybe James Clapper is right, maybe America did suffer “massive” damage from revealing that the NSA can suck up just about everything on the internet. But, maybe lots of other outfits can too. Maybe, as Herb suggests, we need to temper our security with some public transparency.
Thanks for commenting.
Oh just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean the information about you isn’t out there. Many companies make a business of gathering it in order to use it for their own purposes or sell it to other companies. It’s not out there for free. Their computer algorithms compile bits of information about you from many sources — your purchases, your banks, your credit ratings, all public records like birth, marriage, divorce, real estate, car ownership, DMV, old phone books, family trees, etc. The government, of course, has access to far more. Virtually everything.
“The government basically told us they could and would access any communications between foreigners and Americans. What they did not say was that they would also access all communications between Americans and Americans, right here at home.”
I find your latter claim, made especially by folks who are “grateful” for what Snowden did, to be fairly common. But there is a problem with it. If by “access” you mean hold in storage massive amounts of unused data, then you are right. But if by access you mean the right to retrieve and use any of that stored data, then I think you are mistaken. It hasn’t been proven, at least to my satisfaction, that the government was routinely retrieving and using data from domestic communications, without a court order to do so. If you have any information to the contrary, I would be happy to see it.
Finally, when you say “communications,” that implies content, and the government claims it is not collecting the content of domestic phone calls, only the names, numbers, and times of the calls. If that is true, I don’t see that as a tremendous violation of privacy (telephone companies, for instance, have always collected this information for business reasons). If, however, it was proven to me that the government was collecting the content without a court order (that is based on reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity), then I, like you, would have a big problem with it. In the mean time, while I theoretically worry about the potential abuse by government, there doesn’t seem to be any good evidence—so far—that the government has abused its authority under the law. As of now, I agree with Snowden on at least one thing: “People have unfairly demonized the NSA to a point that is too extreme.”
” … the right to retrieve and use any of that stored data.” No, I don’t think they have the right, but I think they have the ability and the power, and with nothing to stop them and no way to check them, I don’t doubt they are doing it. If my own senator, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is concerned about the government’s abuse of power here, then you can bet I am. If the government isn’t even telling the intelligence committee what they’re doing, how is anyone going to keep a check on them? See my post “Text of senators’ letter challenging Patriot Act abuses.”
I enjoyed your take on this. I agree that it’s too soon to know what history’s judgment on Mr. Snowden will be, but if I was forced to make make I guess I’d say that he’ll be remembered as a hero rather than a villian. It seems to me that he has done his country a great service by exposing these practices and by doing so he seems to have initiated at least some momentum to end or reform them. I’m glad he had the courage to do it.
I’m glad you joined the conversation, Bill. On Snowden, I agree that the changes he is causing are neither all bad nor all good. I’m still waiting for James Clapper and others to get more specific about the “massive” damage. Something tells me it will be a long wait.