Glenn Greenwald, Ed Snowden’s amanuensis, has gone ballistic over my blog post about Snowden’s emetic New York Times op-ed. He claims, with his typical flair for understatement, that I am guilty of propagating “lies” when I wrote that, in his op-ed, Snowden lacked the courage to criticize the surveillance apparatus erected by his host, Vladimir Putin, which is far vaster and more intrusive than those that he attacks in the Western democracies. In fact, Greenwald claims that Edward Snowden is far more courageous than I am because he “sacrificed his liberty and unraveled his life in pursuit of his beliefs.”
So Snowden is supposed to be the embodiment of bravery even though — unlike, say, Daniel Ellsberg — he is not willing to face a fair trial in the United States, which, in contrast to Russia, has an independent justice system? Instead, he fled to Moscow where he lives in gilded comfort under the protection of the tyrannical Putin and his secret police.
Greenwald claims that Snowden “unraveled his life” in pursuit of The Truth, but in fact what he did was to give up an anonymous existence as a low-level drone in a dead-end government job to become a global celebrity who is feted by the likes of Glenn Greenwald and accorded space to expound his views in the pages of the world’s most prestigious newspapers. Who, a few years ago, would have cared what Ed Snowden thought? Now, it seems, far too many people do. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
Snowden, after all, isn’t exactly shivering in Siberia and surviving on black bread and swamp water. He is living a comfortable existence, presumably at the expense of the Russian government, in one of the world’s most expensive cities with ritzy restaurants, chi chi shops, and chic bars galore. He has even been joined in his luxurious exile by his girlfriend. This isn’t bravery. It’s grandstanding without paying the price — without, that is, risking a lengthy jail term for the crimes that Snowden has plainly committed.
As for the substance of Snowden’s article, Greenwald is right that I missed one brief passing mention of Russia. Snowden did applaud products offering encryption from companies such as Apple. “Such structural technological changes can ensure access to basic privacies beyond borders, insulating ordinary citizens from the arbitrary passage of anti-privacy laws, such as those now descending upon Russia,” Snowden wrote.
I’m not sure what “anti-privacy laws” are or how laws “descend” — on parachutes? In the real world, laws are passed or promulgated by someone. In the West, they come from elected legislators. In Russia, from the Kremlin and Putin’s rubber stump Duma. Perhaps that’s Snowden’s gentle way of alluding (without mentioning Putin’s name) to the growing tyranny of Russia’s president, who is surveilling his citizens like crazy and crushing dissent in the best Soviet tradition. But, yes, it’s true that there was one mention of Russia—one of the world’s most egregious dictatorships — amid an article that spends the other 99% of its verbiage decrying supposed intrusions on privacy in the United States and other Western democracies. And I’m sorry I missed it. But that’s called an omission or an oversight — it’s not a “lie.”
Likewise, Greenwald makes much of the fact that Snowden published an article in the Guardian last year entitled, “Vladimir Putin must be called to account for surveillance just like Obama.” I didn’t see this article, but it’s hardly the full-throated assault on Putin that the Guardian headline-writers made it out to be. It’s all about a question Snowden was permitted to ask Putin at a carefully choreographed televised forum staged by Putin to glorify himself: “Does [your country] intercept, analyse or store millions of individuals’ communications?” Putin denied it — an obvious lie — but instead of saying so forthrightly, Snowden merely wrote that Putin’s answer was “suspiciously narrow” and “evasive.” “In fact,” he continued, “Putin’s response was remarkably similar to Barack Obama’s initial, sweeping denials of the scope of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, before that position was later shown to be both untrue and indefensible.”
That is moral equivalence at its most untrue and indefensible. There is no comparison between the brutal dictatorship that Putin created and the liberal democracy of which Barack Obama is the elected leader. The State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Report lists a long litany of abuses committed by Snowden’s hosts.
A few highlights:
During the year Russia adopted laws that impose harsh fines for unsanctioned meetings; identify nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as “foreign agents” if they engage in “political activity” while receiving foreign funding; suspend NGOs that have U.S. citizen members or receive U.S. support and are engaged in “political activity” or “pose a threat to Russian interests”; recriminalize libel; allow authorities to block Web sites without a court order; and significantly expand the definition of treason. Media outlets were pressured to alter their coverage or to fire reporters and editors critical of the government…
Due process was denied during the detentions and trials of protesters arrested following the May 6 demonstration in Moscow in which a small group of the protestors engaged in violence; in the detention, trial, and sentencing of the members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, who were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred; and searches and criminal cases lodged against several political activists. Individuals responsible for the deaths of prominent journalists, activists, and whistleblowers, notably Sergey Magnitskiy, have yet to be brought to be brought to justice.
Other problems reported during the year included: allegations of torture and excessive force by law enforcement officials; life-threatening prison conditions; interference in the judiciary and the right to a fair trial; abridgement of the right to privacy; restrictions on minority religions; widespread corruption; societal and official intimidation of civil society and labor activists; limitations on the rights of workers; trafficking in persons; attacks on migrants and select religious and ethnic minorities; and discrimination against and limitation of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. The government failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.
And that’s to say nothing of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his illegal annexation of Crimea, his minions’ shoot-down of a civilian airliner, the rape of Chechnya, and other war crimes too numerous to mention.
When Ed Snowden publicly denounces in plain language these and other civil liberties abuses committed by his Russian hosts — well, then I will have been proved wrong about his hypocrisy. But Snowden’s mealy-mouthed suggestions that perhaps there’s more to Russian mass surveillance than Putin lets on or that there may be some problems with Russian “anti-privacy laws” are hardly evidence that he is willing to bite the hand that feeds him.
The larger points in my blog post stand: that Snowden has diminished our security against terrorist attack, that he is a traitor (not a word I use lightly or often), and that he is selective and hypocritical in his outrage, focusing his ire on the US, where there are ample civil liberties safeguards on government surveillance, while living as a guest of a despotic state that tramples on the liberty of its citizens and invades its neighbors.