Commentary Magazine


Snowden and the Cold Warriors

A curious display of projection has characterized the response by many to the revelations leaked by NSA defector Edward Snowden. The projection is understandable–even, perhaps, honorable in some cases–but projection it is. Essentially, many American commentators genuinely believed that America would be better for having Snowden divulge all this information. The problem is that the evidence suggests Snowden didn’t.

Those who thought Snowden’s revelations about domestic surveillance were an opportune moment to have an honest conversation about American national security thought Snowden did too. Those who saw in the trove of secret information the key to returning American governance to its constitutional principles took Snowden’s declaration of same without reservation. Those who thought America would be stronger for having cause to apply much-needed reforms to its overly bureaucratized national security state assumed Snowden, too, saw himself as a blessing in disguise for the Pentagon.

As the revelations began to stray from having anything to do with domestic surveillance into having everything to do with benefiting America’s enemies into whose arms Snowden ran, it became utterly clear that Snowden was not an honest man seeking an honest conversation or that he had any interest in preserving democracy (in fact just the opposite: he expressed strident hostility to the democratic process). Snowden was not a man of peace; he defected to bloodthirsty authoritarians on the eve of war.

And today an intriguing essay in Politico Magazine shines some light on who misjudged Snowden and why. Jack Devine, a former CIA veteran, sees a familiar archetype in Snowden:

In his new book, No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald tells how Edward Snowden once confided to him, “with a hint of embarrassment,” how much he had learned from playing video games. In the black-and-white world of video games, “the protagonist is often an ordinary person, who finds himself faced with grave injustices from powerful forces and has the choice to flee in fear or to fight for his beliefs,” Greenwald writes.

But Edward Snowden’s video-game world is not the real world. As a former director of operations for the CIA, I see Snowden in a very different light. My colleagues and I in the agency spent our careers looking for people like him—on the other side, that is. We worked hard to locate the kind of person who could be persuaded to give up his country’s secrets: narcissistic, often delusional under-achievers whom we could hope to turn into loose-lipped sources in our enemies’ camps and other hostile locations. We understood just how valuable it was to every aspect of our foreign policy to know the plans and intentions of our enemies; the best way to do this was to look for a source and exploit people like Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker, ­ to target for this purpose.

Devine does not oppose sensible reforms to the NSA data collection programs. But contrary to those who think Snowden has added much-needed context to our national-security debate, Devine correctly notes that “Like the video-game fanatic he appears to have been, Snowden has made black-and-white what is actually a very complex issue.”

Snowden and his defenders have wallowed in shallow waters, leaving the task of complicated analysis to those who can ill afford to engage merely in smug sloganeering. But another interesting aspect to this is what the whole affair tells us about why Snowden’s defenders got him so wrong. Critics of the national security state have enjoyed embarrassing themselves recently by glomming on to the notion that hawks are stuck in a Cold War frame of mind, only to have Putin’s Russia make it clear that they are the ones out of touch.

Something similar happened with Snowden. His defenders–again, out of honorable, if naïve intentions–saw in him what they wanted to see. Those who recognized Snowden right away for who he really was, it turned out, were the folks like Devine, who had decades of experience in American national security during the Cold War. Because the Cold War is basically the history of the second half of the twentieth century, it always struck me as odd that people would actually boast of ignoring that history when making policy pronouncements.

Yet that’s what the Snowden apologists did. Those with real on-the-ground experience, who weren’t willing to dismiss decades of history because it didn’t conform to their ideal of a video-game world, were the ones who understood the story from the beginning.

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