NSA leaker Edward Snowden, in an email to long-retired Republican libertarian Senator Gordon Humphreys:
Though reporters and officials may never believe it, I have not provided any information that would harm our people — agent or not — and I have no intention to do so.
Further, no intelligence service — not even our own — has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect. While it has not been reported in the media, one of my specializations was to teach our people at DIA how to keep such information from being compromised even in the highest threat counter-intelligence environments (i.e. China).
You may rest easy knowing I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.
Once you’re done giggling about his claimed immunity to torture — I mean, right? — the bit about information “that would harm our people — agent or not” is worth exploring. When Snowden leaked a trove of documents to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, the reporters noted something worrying:
SPIEGEL has decided not to publish details it has seen about secret operations that could endanger the lives of NSA workers. Nor is it publishing the related internal code words. However, this does not apply to information about the general surveillance of communications. They don’t endanger any human lives — they simply describe a system whose dimensions go beyond the imaginable.
Reading that closely, we see that Snowden claims he’s not provided damaging information, while Der Spiegel says he most certainly had but they’re trying to release only what they think probably won’t be damaging. So either Snowden is either lying about the nature of the data he stole or he is dangerously naïve, since a newspaper clearly aghast at those documents nevertheless chose not to publish some. Last month, according to his spokesman/defense lawyer/journalist Glenn Greenwald, the story was slightly different:
On what basis should anyone trust the harm judgment of a reporter over a government official trained to assess it? Everyone can debate that if they want, though it will never change the classification rules in place: no government will ever willingly outsource its declassification authority to a journalist. It’s just that simple.
Moreover, despite saying he has no intention to ever release information that might endanger U.S. agents (and even while accepting that a sympathetic Der Spiegel thinks he already has), Snowden apparently told Greenwald that he actually has every intention of leaking catastrophically damaging information under the right circumstances.
Asked whether Snowden seemed worried about his personal safety, Greenwald responded, “he’s concerned.”
He said the U.S. has shown it’s “willing to take even the most extreme steps if they think doing so is necessary to neutralize a national security threat,” Greenwald said. “He’s aware of all those things, he’s concerned about them but he’s not going to be in any way paralyzed or constrained in what he thinks he can do as a result of that.”
Asked about a so-called dead man’s pact, which Greenwald has said would allow several people to access Snowden’s trove of documents were anything to happen to him, Greenwald replied that “media descriptions of it have been overly simplistic.
“It’s not just a matter of, if he dies, things get released, it’s more nuanced than that,” he said. “It’s really just a way to protect himself against extremely rogue behavior on the part of the United States, by which I mean violent actions toward him, designed to end his life, and it’s just a way to ensure that nobody feels incentivized to do that.”
He declined to provide any more details about the pact or how it would work.
Interestingly, the only party casually discussing Edward Snowden’s torture and execution is, apparently, Edward Snowden. More prosaically, he most certainly does have information he thinks or assumes will do harm (or massively disrupt a corrupt system, etc.) and is trying to graymail the U.S. government into not pursuing him.
Graymailing is an interesting legal tactic, most often a crass threat used by celebrated figures like Oliver North and Scooter Libby to avoid punishment for committing treason and outing covert spies — precisely what Snowden claims he does not want to do while bragging of being able to. That he also brags of being immune to torture (a laughable claim), while spouting delusions of assassination, just makes the whole affair terribly odd.
Meanwhile, Snowden’s increasingly bizarre stunts are having the fascinating side effect of alienating many Russian human rights activists. Specifically, the activists who are not funded by the Kremlin (the rest are government-supported in various ways, part of Moscow’s attempt to displace legitimate human rights activism in the country).
What does this mean? I’m remain entirely unsure what to make of Snowden as a person — is he lying about his actions and intentions or just gob-smackingly naïve about the world and his own role in it? And who gave him the patently foolish advice to try to enter Russia on a revoked passport? More must come out before we can say.
But I also remain deeply upset at the journalists who have swallowed his inane egotism so wholeheartedly just to poke their finger at “the Man.” A lot of journalism about Snowden, his leaks, and the intimate role Greenwald, half advocate and half journalist, has played in publicizing and defending them remains deeply troublesome, ethically.
After all, how many journalists write op-eds about their own stories they write in the news section of their paper? It’s one thing to say there is no line between news and editorial anymore, or to acknowledge bias, but the degree to which the roles of journalist, advocate, defense lawyer, activist, lobbyist, and publicist have all crossed over and melded and corrupted each other leaves a horrible taste in my mouth.
Still, the saga will roll on, with the nation’s secrets in the hands of an IT worker and an angry expatriate who seemingly cannot distinguish between various roles he thinks are essential to a democratic society. Forgive me if I’m not brimming with comfort at the likely outcome.
UPDATE: Edward Snowden’s lawyer in Moscow, Anatoly Kucherena, who helped Snowden file an application for asylum today, also sits on the “public council” of the Federal Security Bureau. The AFP also reports that Snowden reached out to Kucherena, not the other way around. This should be yet another reason to doubt Snowden’s claims that his information is perfectly safe from malign actors — his own judgment, which he thinks is superior to everyone else’s, has him reaching out to the FSB for help. Unbelievable.