Dangerously Naïve, Or A Liar

Updated below.

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.

UPDATEEdward 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.