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“Snowden, Go Home”: His Unfinished Business Is In A U. S. Courtroom, Not A Moscow Suburb

Edward Snowden, leaker extraordinaire of classified NSA documents, is said to be seeking an extension of his political asylum in Russia, where he has resided, beyond the reach of US jurisdiction and under legal protection granted by Vladimir Putin personally, for a little over one year. Snowden seems to be settling in for the long haul as a fugitive expatriate.

He is making a mistake. At some point Snowden must return to the US and face the criminal charges pending against him. By postponing this reckoning, he adds to skepticism about his motives. More important, he diminishes his legitimacy as a whistleblower who broke the law to expose government overreaching, change official policy, and vindicate principles of government transparency and individual privacy.

Snowden has portrayed his accessing, copying and distribution (to selected journalists) of NSA records as acts of conscience-and so they may have been. Civil disobedience is a time-honored form of protest, particularly in a democracy. But civil disobedience is not painless; it is not a get-out-of-jail free card.

Civil disobedience assumes-in fact, requires-submission to legal processes: to trial and possible punishment. This, the painful part of civil disobedience, is what distinguishes morally-just protest, on one hand, from mere law-breaking, on the other. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Think also of James Risen, a New York Times reporter who faces sanctions, including jail, for his civil disobedience in defying a court order. Risen has been waging a legal battle to protect his confidential sources for a book revealing classified information on US intelligence operations in Iran. Having appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, to no avail, Risen has run out of legal options (although the Justice Department has hinted that it might back off of enforcing its subpoena demanding Risen’s testimony about confidential sources).

Snowden’s situation and Risen’s are very similar. Both Snowden and Risen are in trouble for disclosing classified information. Snowden has been indicted, while Risen is subject to a court order (that remains intact after multiple appeals). Snowden has fled the country, escaping (at least for now) any legal consequences for his actions. The morally equivalent choice for Risen would be to renege on his promise of confidentiality and to provide sworn testimony to government prosecutors.

The likelihood of Risen, a principled and professional journalist, betraying his source to avoid jail–is zero. For Snowden, too, the moral choice is clear. To legitimize his violations of federal law as acts of conscience, he needs to face the consequences, not run away from them.

If Snowden, instead of going public with his information, had decided to leak his NSA documents on a confidential basis to journalists at The Guardian and the Washington Post, those journalists would today be in the same boat as the New York Times’ Risen-under subpoena and facing prison or other serious sanctions for refusing to comply. Why, then, should the expectations be so different for Snowden?

Snowden no doubt fears going to prison. Who wouldn’t? But Snowden, if he returned to the US, would receive a trial that is not only fair, but a model of due process. Media interest would be off the charts. That would maximize transparency in all court proceedings–which, in turn, would pressure prosecutors to exercise restraint.

Snowden would have the very best criminal defense lawyers in the country (regardless of his ability to pay them). And those lawyers would make the most of the government’s dilemma: having to prove harm to national security, but without revealing sensitive information that could cause still more harm to national security.

Snowden’s lawyers will also insist that he cease all public comments. No more press conferences via Skype, no Twitter or email, no calls with reporters. Total silence, giving his lawyers control over his message and image. For Snowden, who clearly loves the sound of his own voice and delights in dealings with the media, such muzzling may be hard to abide. Still, it’s not a reason for staying on the lam.

Snowden’s unfinished business is in a US courtroom, not a Moscow suburb.


By: Peter Scheer, Executive Director, First Amendment Coalition, The Huffington Post Blog, July 16, 2014

July 17, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, National Security Agency | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Naivety Of An Ideologue”: Leaker Or Leader? Edward Snowden Claims Victory

In an interview last week with NBC’s Brian Williams, NSA secret-leaker Edward Snowden set himself a low bar and claimed success: His leaks, he said, have gotten us talking about these important issues. Mission accomplished? Let’s think about that…

While Snowden has in fact displayed several admirable leadership qualities – like taking bold action, operating in integrity with his stated beliefs, and communicating (to Brian Williams, anyway) with gravitas – he, like many would-be-good leaders, has fallen short in the results department.

Good leadership takes balancing cost versus benefit to achieve something. The measure of such a costly breach of national security as Snowden committed, then, should be significant positive change, rather than fresh fodder for our hapless Congress and paying NBC’s bills for a few news cycles.

For example, could there follow from all of this, say, a thorough and unbiased audit of our intelligence services showing specifically if, and in what ways, the US Government discarded its checks and balances and/or hindered our constitutionally-guaranteed protections and freedoms? Such an audit could then result in positive reforms.

Similarly, for the US Government to be the leader here, it would need to show, rather than simply assert, that Snowden’s admittedly criminal actions have created harm, and also show that it has used its powers in strictly constitutional ways.

Neither will happen. Instead, Snowden’s sensational actions reflect the naivety of an ideologue: Someone intensely devoted to a cause, yet guided more by the image of perfection than by the real world. This “national conversation” is more likely to fester and fizzle than to lead to policy reform — after all, that’s the status quo state of the union these days.

Whether he was a patriot or a traitor in leaking NSA secrets is a dumb question being asked by smart people in the media who know better, but need to sell cars and paper towels. Patriot or traitor? He is, as are those in government guilty of “overreach,” both and neither. The two sides here are more alike than not.

I’m not suggesting that whiste-blowing isn’t important to our democracy — it is. Nor am I saying it’s Edward Snowden’s responsibility to make any needed changes. Yet if something productive beyond dialogue is to come of this, then we’ll need actual leadership.

That’s the challenge when it comes to the dark arts of intelligence. We can’t and shouldn’t ever know what great leadership looks like when it comes to the content of collecting and analyzing intelligence to prevent violence and terrorism. Yet if Snowden’s actions are to be seen as good leadership, then bring it on, Snowden: Let’s see the benefits that more than cover the costs of what you have done.


By: David Peck, Politics Blog, The Huffington Post, June 1, 2014

June 2, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, Ideologues, National Security Agency | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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

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

“Snowden Conspiracies Are The Left’s Benghazi”: Much Ado About Terrible Crimes That Haven’t Actually Happened

Moscow has always been hard on idealists. So it’s no surprise to find the world-renowned civil libertarian Edward Snowden feeling shaky midway through his first Russian winter. In a televised Christmas message recorded by Britain’s Channel 4, Snowden waxed alternately as grandiose and apocalyptic as a Dostoyevsky character.

On one hand, the former NSA analyst who stole a hoard of classified documents from the spy agency and passed them around to selected journalists sees himself as a world historical figure.

“The mission’s already accomplished,” he told the Washington Post. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated … I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”

On the other hand, we’re all doomed. Even George Orwell had no clue. Snowden insists that government surveillance has far outstripped anything dreamed of in the dystopian novel 1984.

“The types of collection in the book — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go,” Snowden said. “Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.”

“A child born today,” he lamented, “will … never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves (or) an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.”

Probably not, because they’ll post it on Facebook, along with kitten videos and photos of their lunch.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Frankly, I wonder if Snowden actually read 1984, which is less about surveillance techniques than the police state mentality: Big Brother, “War is Peace,” the Two Minutes Hate, children informing on their parents, etc.

Indeed, Snowden himself appears to exhibit a classic case of what Orwell called “doublethink.”

“To know and not to know,” Orwell wrote, “to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic … to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy.”

Or, to put it another way, to flee the totalitarian excesses of the U.S. government while taking refuge in countries where the concept of “privacy” scarcely exists. To condemn NSA snooping while handing its secrets to China, the world’s leading practitioner of computerized military and commercial espionage.

This is “mission accomplished”?

So no, I’m not buying Edward Snowden the savior. Whatever the man’s motives, he’s a traitor. The real scandal is how he got a security clearance to start with.

Anyway, despite the melodrama, it’s not technology that threatens freedom of conscience. Quite the opposite. While in Russia, Snowden should read Vasily Aksyonov’s Generations of Winter to understand the repression Stalin achieved with gadgets even more primitive than Orwell depicted.

Something else that didn’t exist in George Orwell’s day, of course, were jihadist websites exporting criminal conspiracies worldwide. It was also much harder to transfer money and to communicate from halfway around the world, and in nothing like real time.

Bomb-making instructions weren’t easily available on the Internet, making mass murder harder to bring off from remote locations. International terrorism existed, but on a far less dangerous scale.

Certainly the terrorist threat can be exaggerated. However, unless you really don’t want your government doing all it can to prevent mass casualty strikes, most of what the NSA does appears both necessary and inevitable.

Here’s something else the melodramatic Mr. Snowden said: “Recently we learned that our governments, working in concert, have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance watching everything we do.”

This is such sheer, self-dramatizing humbug I can’t think why anybody pretends to believe it. At worst, your telephone “metadata” and mine are stored in a huge NSA database, where it will be purged after five years unless you start dialing 1-900-HotVirgins in Yemen — at which point the FBI might seek a search warrant to check you out.

That sensor in your pocket tracking your whereabouts 24/7? It’s the GPS function in your cellphone. You want to hide from the government (or your wife)? Shut it off or hang it from the dog’s collar.

“I don’t know what he’s up to, Sergeant, but he’s still under the front porch.”

For that matter Amazon and Citicard know a lot more about me personally than the NSA, using information I’ve willingly given them. So do Verizon, Facebook and my bank. But nobody makes me read on a Kindle or pay for things with a credit card. As long as the data exists, it can theoretically be abused.

NSA would be a rare bureaucracy if it didn’t overstep its bounds. However, until I see genuine victims of government abuse, I’ll keep thinking the Snowden affair has become the left’s equivalent of the Benghazi delusion: much ado about terrible crimes that haven’t actually happened.


By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, January 5, 2014

January 7, 2014 Posted by | Benghazi, Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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