Edward Snowden may have been acting independently when he downloaded and leaked information about the NSA’s surveillance programs, but the moment he became a fugitive abroad he became dependent on the generosity of his various hosts and, to a lesser extent, the media. He now seems to be alienating both.
Of course, he’d already begun to wear out his welcome in Moscow when he was offered asylum by Vladimir Putin if Snowden would agree to keep his mouth shut. Snowden, at the time fielding offers from warmer climates, spurned Russia’s open hand. He then went crawling back to Putin for asylum when it became clear that leaving Russia would be more complicated than it seemed, but the condition still applies and he’s wavering. Now the press is growing visibly tired of Snowden’s world-traveling ego trip.
The New York Times carries a story today on how Russia is using Snowden for propaganda value, and offers a pristine demonstration of passive-aggressive journalism. First, the Times explains that Russian lawmakers are attempting to make the case that Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance and cooperation with communication firms proves that Russia must have more control over electronic communication:
Two members of Russia’s Parliament have cited Mr. Snowden’s leaks about N.S.A. spying as arguments to compel global Internet companies like Google and Microsoft to comply more closely with Russian rules on personal data storage.
These rules, rights groups say, might help safeguard personal data but also would open a back door for Russian law enforcement into services like Gmail.
“We need to quickly put these huge transnational companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook under national controls,” Ruslan Gattarov, a member of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, or Federation Council, said in an interview. “This is the lesson Snowden taught us.”
But then the Times hits Snowden with a not-so-subtle dig at his naïveté:
American information technology companies operating in Russia routinely face demands from law enforcement to reveal user data, and have less recourse than in the United States to resist in the courts.
The Russian reaction may surprise Mr. Snowden most of all. In an interview with The Guardian, he said he unveiled details of N.S.A. surveillance because “I don’t want to live in a world where there is no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”
In other words, he maybe should have expected this. Indeed, self-described “whistleblowers” in American who flee the U.S. with reams of data supposedly proving the U.S. to be some sort of evildoer–human rights abuser, surveillance state, etc.–immediately discover they have landed themselves in something of a quandary: it is highly unlikely they will find asylum in a country that doesn’t undermine the nobility of their quest.
Snowden is a perfect example. As the Times begins its story today: “Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, fled the United States saying he did not want to live in a surveillance state.” And to where did the brilliant young Mr. Snowden flee? China. And then Putin’s Russia. And from Russia, he tried getting to Ecuador. And then Venezuela. You get the picture.
Of course we can ask where else he might have gone. Europe? Where British and French domestic spying are legendary and without the oversight the U.S. applies? Where exactly do you go if you want to leave the United States for freer lands? You go where Snowden went, which is quite literally nowhere: he has been holed up in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport for weeks now, living in sovereign limbo.
This is not to dismiss as automatically illegitimate Snowden’s complaints about the NSA. It’s merely to point out that Snowden was the one who left the U.S. because he didn’t want to live in a surveillance state, and Snowden is the one right now begging to live in a surveillance state. He may have some fair concerns about American policy, but he isn’t exactly bursting with credibility.
In addition, his credibility is suffering further because his independence is being called into question. Last week, when Snowden called a meeting with “human rights” officials at the airport, the journalist Joshua Foust noticed that he was accompanied by a woman who runs public relations for the FSB, Russia’s domestic security apparatus. Foust continued:
As a rule, when a cleared intelligence employee seeks refuge in another country running a hostile intelligence service while carrying gigabytes of top secret documents, that isn’t the behavior of a whistleblower. That is the behavior of a defector. The involvement of known FSB operatives at his asylum acceptance – and the suddenly warm treatment of HRW and Transparency International after months of government harassment – suggests this was a textbook intelligence operation, and not a brave plea for asylum from political persecution.
Foust isn’t alone. Today the Moscow Times has a long article asking many related questions. Why, for example, had the Federal Migration Service not received a request for asylum from Snowden? Who is helping Snowden live for nearly a month in the transit zone? Who helped Snowden organize a meeting with those human rights groups? Who is communicating on his behalf? The article quotes one human rights activist saying: “I did not understand what the meaning of the meeting was … It was very clear that the meeting was more like a news conference, albeit with no journalists present.”
If journalists who are sympathetic to reforming the NSA are nonetheless openly speculating that Snowden is acting like a foreign spy, not a whistleblower, it is clear Snowden’s behavior is not doing him any favors. It’s wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest Snowden should demonstrate some transparency, but it’s not clear he would appreciate the irony.