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“I Am Unmoved”: Edward Snowden’s NBC Interview Revealed His Ultimate Arrogance

Let’s give Edward Snowden his due: He did himself a lot of good in his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, which aired last night. He presents well, coming across as earnest, thoughtful and intelligent. There is no manic gleam in his eye, no evident hatred of his country. He is well-spoken and articulate. He presents his own case more compellingly than does Glenn Greenwald, who speaks with a barely-suppressed rage much of the time—and an altogether unsuppressed hostility all of the time. Snowden, by contrast, is cool and measured, his affect cerebral. Where Greenwald and Julian Assange talk about NSA as an evil monolith, Snowden talks about how he misses his former colleagues, whom he regards as good people. He gamely objects to their vilification. I have no doubt that his performance will move many viewers, who will see—as he clearly does—nobility in his sacrifices, purity in his motives, and honor in his decision to defy the law in some larger defense of morality as he sees it.

Yet I was unmoved by Snowden’s performance.

My stony indifference to his earnest self-account was not because his interview was insubstantial. It wasn’t. Indeed, Snowden raised at least two important factual matters that warrant clarification by his former agency—one of which NSA addressed today. The first is that NSA has repeatedly described Snowden as a former systems administrator, a kind of tech-support guy who helped manage computers for the agency. Snowden, by contrast, describes himself as a cyber-spy, a claim Greenwald also advances in his recent book. The disparity is at least a little bit important as it goes to the question of exactly what sort of person did this. Was the problem one of a disaffected support staffer who took matters into his own hands or was it that NSA was betrayed by one of its own operatives? It also goes to the question of how much Snowden can reasonably claim to know about the agency’s substantive work—whom it targets, how, and why. And it thus goes also to the question of credibility. Is the government downplaying Snowden’s role to diminish his credibility or is he padding his resume to enhance it?

Second and more importantly, Snowden in this interview directly challenged NSA’s claim that he had never raised his concerns internally. This claim has been crucial to the government’s dismissal of Snowden as a legitimate whistleblower. Yet Snowden says he raised his concerns by email more than once. The government announced that it had found only one such email, which it released today and which does not remotely suggest whistleblowing. The exchange, rather, reflects a routine inquiry about the relationship between executive orders and statutes—one to which a lawyer responded appropriately. Again, one side or the other is going to emerge with egg on its face. If this brief email exchange—which took place long after Snowden was already exfiltrating documents from the agency—is what Snowden means by raising his concerns internally, his effort was laughable. On the other hand, if more material were ever to turn up that actually supported Snowden’s claims, it would seriously undermine the government’s credibility concerning his internal behavior before he left Hawaii.

However important these questions are, they are not ultimately the matters that will determine what we should think of Snowden. And on the more important issues, Snowden—earnestness and all—utterly failed to explain certain stubborn, inconvenient facts that make it hard to accept him as the figure he claims to be. Some of these facts he did not challenge at all, as they are too clearly true to brook contest. Some he challenged only weakly. And some Williams did not bother to ask him about at all. The result is a haze over the noble portrait the fugitive paints of himself.

Let’s start with the fact that Snowden ran. Greenwald spends a good deal of space in his book (which I reviewed the other day) describing how deeply at peace Snowden was with the likelihood of spending a very long time in prison. The early church martyrs were not more blissfully resigned to their suffering than was the Snowden of Greenwald’s book—a man whose freedom, indeed, whose very life, was as nothing compared with the public’s need to know the government’s interpretation of Section 215 and its compromise of Angry Birds. Yet Snowden did not, after all, return to face the consequences of his stand. He has evaded law enforcement for a year. And his explanation of that evasion is, well, hardly that of a brave man.

You see, Snowden explains in the interview, the law he violated doesn’t allow the defense he would want to put on. So he’d likely be convicted and serve a very long prison sentence—to which we learn he is not quite so eager to subject himself as Greenwald once admiringly thought. Snowden, of course, explains that he has an entirely selfless reason for not wanting to spend decades in prison. It’s not that he fears it, you understand. But it might scare other whistleblowers out of following his example. Whatever the reason, when push came to shove, Snowden chose not to martyr himself but to flee.

And where did flee? He ran to Moscow. On this point, Snowden’s explanation is particularly obtuse. Ask the State Department why he’s there, Snowden suggests. He was just trying to transit through Russia. It wasn’t his fault that he got stuck in Moscow; this happened because the U.S. government revoked his passport.

The passport revocation is not, in fact, why Snowden is stuck in Moscow. For one thing, the government revoked Snowden’s passport before he ever left Hong Kong. Moreover, it does not mean that he must stay in Moscow. It’s at most the reason why he has a choice between remaining in Moscow and coming back to the United States and facing arrest and lacks the option of finding non-Russian safe haven. Hechooses, in other words, to remain in Moscow because he prefers the protection of the dictator there to trial at the hands of his own government.

We should add that he treats this dictator with remarkable kid gloves for a foe of tyranny and surveillance. The words “Ukraine” and “Crimea” do not pass his lips in this interview. Nor do the words “Pussy Riot” or the names of any dissidents who face real repression at the hands of his hosts. Nor, for that matter, does he dwell on Russian surveillance practices, though he notes the professionalism of the Russian intelligence services. He acknowledges that it’s a little uncomfortable to be in Russia at this particular time, but his only specific criticism of his host government is a relatively bland one about the country’s new blogging law.

Snowden, to be sure, denies that he has any kind of relationship with Russian intelligence. He did not bring any documents to Russia, he insists, and he has no access to his stash remotely. He is not paid by Russian intelligence. And he has never been interviewed by the FSB. Even if all of this is true, his larger point is not. He is, at this stage, not a free agent but a tool of Russian intelligence—and of Putin himself—even if he doesn’t know it. He is in the country because his presence embarrasses the United States and because his disclosures serve Russian interests. He is doing things there that help Russia and he is refraining from doing things that offend his hosts. People without some kind of relationship with the security services simply don’t find themselves calling in and throwing softball questions to Vladimir Putin on Russian television. And people without some kind of relationship with the security services also don’t tend to have as their lawyers for asylum Kremlin loyalists who also happen to be members of the FSB’s oversight board.

And then there’s Snowden’s denials that he did any damage. Show me the evidence, he protests, that anyone was really hurt by anything he did—and Williams does not call him on the point. But it’s a mug’s game to acquit oneself of doing harm by simply defining all of the harms one does as goods. If one calls democratic debate and sunshine the blowing of sensitive intelligence programs in which one’s country has invested enormous resources and on which it relies for all sorts of intelligence collection, the exposure is of course harmless. If one regards as a salutary exercise the exposure of one’s country’s offensive intelligence operations and capabilities to the intelligence services of adversary nations, then of course that exposure does no harm. And if one regards the many billions of dollars American industry has lost as merely a fair tax on its sins for having cooperated with NSA, then sure, no harm there either.

Snowden is too smart to actually believe that he did no harm to the U.S. What he means, rather, is that he regards harms to U.S. intelligence interests as good things much of the time and that he reserves for himself the right to define which harms are goods and which harms are real harms.

And this brings us to Snowden’s ultimate arrogance, the thing that makes his calm certainty finally more infuriating than anything else: He believes he is above the law. He believes he should get to decide what stays secret and what does not. He believes that he should get to decide what laws he can and cannot be tried under. He believes he gets to decide what rules should govern spying. And he not only believes he should get credit for civil disobedience without being willing to face the legal consequences of his actions, he believes he should get credit for courage as though he had done so as well.

As I say, I am unmoved.


By: Benjamin Wittes, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution; The New Republic, May 30, 2014

May 31, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“In The Name Of Freedom”: How To Spot A Paranoid Libertarian

In a recent essay in the New Republic, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz contends that Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange reflect a political impulse he calls “paranoid libertarianism.” Wilentz claims that far from being “truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors,” they “despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.”

Wilentz gives credit to Richard Hofstadter for the term “paranoid libertarianism,” but he is being generous. Although Hofstadter wrote an influential essay called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” he didn’t call special attention to its libertarian manifestation. Wilentz has performed an important public service in doing exactly that.

Most of Wilentz’s essay focuses on Snowden, Greenwald and Assange, and he offers a lot of details in an effort to support his conclusions about each of them. But let’s put the particular individuals to one side. Although Wilentz doesn’t say much about paranoid libertarianism as such, the general category is worth some investigation.

It can be found on the political right, in familiar objections to gun control, progressive taxation, environmental protection and health care reform. It can also be found on the left, in familiar objections to religious displays at public institutions and to efforts to reduce the risk of terrorism. Whether on the right or the left, paranoid libertarianism (which should of course be distinguished from libertarianism as such) is marked by five defining characteristics.

The first is a wildly exaggerated sense of risks — a belief that if government is engaging in certain action (such as surveillance or gun control), it will inevitably use its authority so as to jeopardize civil liberties and perhaps democracy itself. In practice, of course, the risk might be real. But paranoid libertarians are convinced of its reality whether or not they have good reason for their conviction.

The second characteristic is a presumption of bad faith on the part of government officials — a belief that their motivations must be distrusted. If, for example, officials at a state university sponsor a Christian prayer at a graduation ceremony, the problem is that they don’t believe in religious liberty at all (and thus seek to eliminate it). If officials are seeking to impose new restrictions on those who seek to purchase guns, the “real” reason is that they seek to ban gun ownership (and thus to disarm the citizenry).

The third characteristic is a sense of past, present or future victimization. Paranoid libertarians tend to believe that as individuals or as members of specified groups, they are being targeted by the government, or will be targeted imminently, or will be targeted as soon as officials have the opportunity to target them. Any evidence of victimization, however speculative or remote, is taken as vindication, and is sometimes even welcome. (Of course, some people, such as Snowden, are being targeted, because they appear to have committed crimes.)

The fourth characteristic is an indifference to tradeoffs — a belief that liberty, as paranoid libertarians understand it, is the overriding if not the only value, and that it is unreasonable and weak to see relevant considerations on both sides. Wilentz emphasizes what he regards as the national- security benefits of some forms of surveillance; paranoid libertarians tend to see such arguments as a sham. Similarly, paranoid libertarians tend to dismiss the benefits of other measures that they despise, including gun control and environmental regulation.

The fifth and final characteristic is passionate enthusiasm for slippery-slope arguments. The fear is that if government is allowed to take an apparently modest step today, it will take far less modest steps tomorrow, and on the next day, freedom itself will be in terrible trouble. Modest and apparently reasonable steps must be resisted as if they were the incarnation of tyranny itself.

In some times and places, the threats are real, and paranoid libertarians turn out to be right. As Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Societies can benefit a lot from paranoid libertarians. Even if their apocalyptic warnings are wildly overstated, they might draw attention to genuine risks, or at least improve public discussion. But as a general rule, paranoia isn’t a good foundation for public policy, even if it operates in freedom’s name.


By: Cass Sunstein, The National Memo, January 30, 2014

January 31, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Government | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Reality Versus The Imaginary”: Does It Matter If Edward Snowden Is A Russian Spy?

We already know that Edward Snowden is dependent on the Russian government to keep him out of reach of the American justice system. But accusations have recently been made that Snowden’s relationship with the Kremlin goes much deeper than we previously suspected.

On Sunday, House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) strongly suggested that Edward Snowden stole NSA secrets with help from Russia, though Rogers declined to provide any evidence to back that suggestion.

The following day, The New Republic‘s Sean Wilentz published a harsh profile chronicling the backgrounds of Snowden and his muckraker allies Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, discerning a common thread of “paranoid libertarianism” that has paradoxically intertwined these self-proclaimed defenders of human rights with a brutal Russian autocracy.

And while Wilentz stops short of accusing Snowden of espionage, Business Insider‘s Michael Kelley also explored Snowden’s ties to Russia, eventually asking, “Is the fact that his life is now overseen by a Russian security detail more than an extraordinary coincidence?”

It bears repeating: No one has produced evidence that Snowden was on Russia’s payroll when he stole the NSA’s secrets. But suppose he was — would it matter?

To answer that question, we need to separate two different controversies surrounding the world’s most famous whistleblower.

First, to resolve the debate over whether Snowden deserves some form of clemency, his motivations and actions are integral. If it is found that he passed national security secrets to Russia or China, that would completely outweigh whatever benefits he has provided to Americans in better understanding the scope of NSA surveillance. Since that question is far from resolved, the New York Times editorial board and others are premature in promoting clemency.

Indeed, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan, in his argument against clemency, flagged that Snowden has not leaked “any documents detailing the cyber-operations of any non-allied countries, especially Russia or China,” even though he presumably would have had access to NSA information regarding their operations. He even leaked information about American operations against the Taliban, which, as Wilentz noted, has nothing to do with protecting American civil liberties, but instead helps Snowden and his allies “damage their bugaboo national security behemoth.”

As Wilentz argued, Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange possess an extreme libertarianism, driving them to undermine American foreign policy. The three, wrote Wilentz, “have unleashed a torrent of classified information with the clear intent of showing that the federal government has spun out of control…an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions.”

On the flip side, if Snowden could somehow prove that he is an American-as-apple pie idealist who simply wants to share information with his fellow citizens, the argument for clemency gains more weight.

However, to resolve the debate over what forms of surveillance are constitutionally sound and effective at counter-terrorism, Snowden’s motivations are fundamentally irrelevant. One could simultaneously believe that Snowden deserves the electric chair for aiding foreign powers, and that the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata violates the Fourth Amendment. Or, that Snowden acted in good faith, yet what he uncovered merely shows an NSA properly focused on terrorism and operating within the bounds of the Constitution.

Yet the latest revelations about Snowden may help clear a path to having a more rational debate about the NSA. The latest reporting suggests that his motivations are at least ideologically suspect and possibly unpatriotic, which makes it easier to sideline Snowden and simply focus on the NSA itself.

Most Americans, regardless of their views on the NSA, don’t possess the reportedly extreme views of Snowden, and don’t see America’s actions on the global stage as deserving of more scorn than Russia or China.

Much is at stake, both in terms of our liberty and our security, as we discuss whether President Obama’s NSA reforms are either appropriately mild or insufficiently drastic. It is in our interest to premise the discussion on what the NSA is doing — not what is being imagined by political extremists, or just possibly, anti-American spies.

By: Bill Scher, The Week, January 23, 2014

January 27, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Beyond An Honest Whistleblower”: Edward Snowden’s Relationship With WikiLeaks Should Concern Everyone

Amid calls for the clemency of Edward Snowden, many questions remain about the 30-year-old’s flight from America and asylum in Russia.

One major unresolved issue is the relationship between “the most dangerous leaker in American history” and WikiLeaks, an organization with an admitted antagonism toward the U.S. and a cozy history with the Kremlin.

Given WikiLeaks penchant for facilitating U.S. government leaks, its early involvement in the Snowden saga deserves scrutiny.

After the NSA contractor outed himself in Hong Kong on June 9, he parted ways with the journalists he met there and went underground.

On June 12, the same day he leaked specific details of NSA hacking in China to the South China Morning Post, Snowden contacted WikiLeaks. The organization subsequently paid for his lodgings and sent top advisor Sarah Harrison to help.

Harrison accompanied Snowden as he met with Russian officials (perhaps in the Kremlin consulate), and WikiLeaks bought his ticket to Moscow on June 23.

(Some suspect Russia and/or WikiLeaks contacted Snowden before June 12, but there is no clear evidence of that.)

Snowden and his closest supporters contend that he was on his way to Latin America when the U.S. government stranded him in Moscow, but there are several reasons to doubt that claim.

First, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Janet Reitman of Rolling Stone that he advised Snowden against going to Latin America because “he would be physically safest in Russia.”

Second, the U.S. revoked Snowden’s passport by June 22, and the unsigned Ecuadorian travel document acquired by Assange was void when Snowden landed in Moscow.

WikiLeaks told BI that the Ecuadorian document was meant to help Snowden leave Hong Kong. The organization has not explained why it would send the American to Russia knowing he was carrying a void passport and a bunk travel document.

On July 12, Snowden’s Moscow lawyer Anatoly Kucherena explained that Snowden “is in a situation with no way out. He has no passport and can travel nowhere; he has no visa.”

Third, even if Snowden had proper travel documentation, it’s unclear if Russia’s post-Soviet security services (FSB) would have allowed an NSA-trained hacker who beat the NSA vetting system and stole a bunch of intel to simply “pass through the business lounge, on the way to Cuba.”

On August 1 Kucherena, who is employed by the FSB, explained why Russia granted Snowden temporary asylum: “Edward couldn’t come and buy himself tickets to Havana or any other countries since he had no passport.”

Beyond its role in Snowden’s getaway and its friendliness with Russia, WikiLeaks is also connected to three of the main people with access to the leaked NSA files. This fact does not necessarily tarnish their reporting, but it is intriguing in light of Wikileaks’ deep involvement with Snowden.

Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, two journalists contacted by Snowden and then given tens of thousands of documents by Snowden in Hong Kong, sit on the board of a foundation that launched in December 2012 to crowd-source funding for WikiLeaks.

Jacob Applebaum, a close friend of Poitras and lead author of at least one Der Spiegel story citing the Snowden leaks, is known as “The American WikiLeaks Hacker” and has co-authored others articles drawing from “internal NSA documents viewed by SPIEGEL.”

Applebaum is not a journalist and does not hide his disdain for the NSA. This week he ended a talk — during which he presented never-before-seen NSA documents — by saying: “[If] you work for the NSA, I’d just like to encourage you to leak more documents.”

Assange told the same audience to “join the CIA. Go in there. Go into the ballpark and get the ball and bring it out … all those organizations will be infiltrated by this generation.”

That is the same man largely credited with saving Snowden from extradition to the U.S. by sending him to Moscow. The 42-year-old Australian has also hosted a Kremlin-funded TV show. And his political party recently met with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who is staunchly backed by the Kremlin.

No wonder Greenwald told Rolling Stone that “Julian stepping forward and being the face of the story wasn’t great for Snowden.”

Snowden also hurt his own cause. Although he initiated an important debate, his statements and actions also pushed him beyond honest whistleblower.

All things considered, Snowden’s affiliation with Assange and WikiLeaks raises a legitimate question: Is the fact that his life is now overseen by a Russian security more than an extraordinary coincidence?

Given that we still don’t know how many classified documents Snowden stole or when he gave up access, that question should concern everyone.


By: Michael Kelley, Business Insider, January 4, 2014

January 6, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Julian Assange As Tyrant”: No Different Than The Politicians He Claims To Be Holding Accountable

When asked to explain why he was running for a seat in the Australian Senate while holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, Julian Assange quoted Plato: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

Plato was “a bit of a fascist,” he said, but had a point.

Imagine the chagrin Mr. Assange must feel now, given that not only did he fail to win a place in the Senate in the recent election, but he was less successful than Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiasts Party. Mr. Muir, who won just 0.5 percent of the vote, is most famous for having posted a video on YouTube of himself having a kangaroo feces fight with friends.

Mr. Assange, who was born and raised in Australia, has radically redefined publishing and provoked an unprecedented global debate about state secrets by subverting established practices and common wisdoms.

It seems odd, then, that his bid for political power, carried out in his absence by the WikiLeaks Party, was drowned by the greatest and most conventional of clichés: power corrupts. His campaign was saddled with the usual backbiting, arguing, dysfunction and even leaks.

In theory, it should have turned out better for him. Australians, who have long had a soft spot for irreverent iconoclasts and an abiding suspicion of authority, have always been more sympathetic to Mr. Assange than Americans have been. A 2013 poll found 58 percent of Australians agreed with the statement “the job WikiLeaks does is more of a good thing.”  Only 29 percent thought it was “more of a bad thing.”

When Mr. Assange decided to run for the Senate, pollsters estimated he could get as much as 4 percent of the vote, with an outside chance of winning a seat, despite the fact that he would be campaigning in absentia.

The WikiLeaks Party candidates were highly skilled researchers, activists and academics. Their policies centered on protecting whistle-blowers, limiting surveillance agencies and ensuring greater transparency.

But during the campaign, after his party imploded with infighting, allegations of selling out and a host of resignations, Mr. Assange was exposed as a politician himself, with some of the same moral failings he has been skewering others for. A couple of weeks before the election, a storm erupted over preference deals, where parties that have already achieved the number of votes they need for a Senate seat can arrange to give spare votes to other parties, which usually pledge to give theirs in return. (Preferences are also passed on by parties whose votes are too low to get a seat.)

These deals are crucial paths to power for minor parties. In leaked e-mails, Mr. Assange stressed that preferences were “the single most important factor” in winning, adding: “Bar a raid on the embassy, we will not win without them.”

But WikiLeaks members alleged that Mr. Assange’s deputies had overridden the party’s governing body, the national council, to allow for preference deals that place right-wing anti-abortion or fringe parties — like the Shooters and Fishers Party — ahead of leftist parties like the Greens, which had supported WikiLeaks. The campaign manager, Greg Barns, attributed the deals to an “administrative error,” but WikiLeaks’s national council had agreed to put the Greens first, and some directors requested an immediate internal investigation. The conflict over those deals, and a delayed investigation, prompted a high-profile WikiLeaks candidate, Leslie Cannold, to resign. She said the party was not what it claimed to be: “a democratically run party that both believes in transparency and accountability.”

Ms. Cannold, an ethicist, has not spoken to Mr. Assange since. “This internal corruption revealed him to be no different,” she said, than the politicians he was claiming he’d be keeping accountable.

Mr. Assange put the resignation down to “the teething problems of a young party” and said he had been distracted by Edward Snowden. But several others resigned at the same time, including Dan Matthews, a founding member and one of Mr. Assange’s oldest friends. Mr. Matthews said in a statement that their “base evaporated” after the deals were made public and that Mr. Assange was incapable of working with a group. He was “an icon,” but he was “his own man.”

Mr. Assange’s actions were at odds with a democratic party structure. He had appointed himself president, for example, although there was no mention of this role in the WikiLeaks constitution.

When a reporter asked him why, he laughed: “I founded it. I mean seriously, this is so fantastic. Look at the name, this is the WikiLeaks Party. The prominent candidate is Julian Assange! Who founded it? I founded it. Are you serious?”

An unbowed Mr. Assange has vowed to fight the next election in three years. But to woo the 99 percent of the Australian population who spurned him, he’ll need to stop laughing at those who suggest that appointing yourself the unquestioned leader of a party, for an unlimited term, might make you a politician after all.

And not exactly a democratic one.


By: Julia Baird, Opinion Writer, The New York Times, September 14, 2013

September 16, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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