When he first entered the public eye, National Security Agency defector Edward Snowden presented himself as an American patriot. In his first public interview, he argued that he intends no harm to the United States and worries that people “won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.” And in a dramatic live interview on the Guardian, he told a questioner “this country is worth dying for.” He further asserted that he’d made a careful effort to protect information that was gathered in the national interest, saying “I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets.” And Snowden’s most reasonable defenders fleshed out the argument that he was acting out of love for his country, saying that oversight of the intelligence community was failing, that the American public would not support such extensive surveillance if it knew what was going on, that our spies are doing much more than merely monitoring terrorists, that Snowden’s actions were a necessary evil or even that Snowden was truly patriotic.
Yet Snowden and his revelations drifted away from that approach, as more information about spying on foreign targets emerged. Snowden’s drift has now taken him to a further shore: Brazil’s. In “an open letter to the people of Brazil,” Snowden offered his services to the Brazilian senate’s “investigations of suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens.” And Snowden tacitly asked for something in return: “Until a country grants permanent political asylum, the US government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak.”
In other words, Snowden has offered up secrets and insights into American intelligence collection to a foreign government, in return for favors from that government. Legally, that’s espionage. Morally, it’s treason. For a Snowden, out to save America’s constitution and its citizens’ civil liberties, altruistically sacrificing himself for their benefit, would have no cause to reveal espionage against foreigners. Such espionage doesn’t harm Americans. Indeed, its revelation has clearly harmed American interests, as it has forced foreign heads of state to denounce American actions publicly and adopt adverse stances towards the United States. A patriotic Snowden wouldn’t have accepted that cost, even if he stood to benefit personally (say, by receiving asylum).
But what’s truly remarkable about the open letter to the Brazilians is the degree to which he’s willing to grovel before them. Previously and unsuccessfully marketed as an American patriot, Snowden has now rebranded himself as a Brazilian one. His letter is full of fulsome references to people and places in Brazil: “When someone in Florianopolis visits a website, the NSA keeps a record of when it happened and what you did there. If a mother in Porto Alegre calls her son to wish him luck on his university exam, NSA can keep that call log for five years or more.” And he warns Brazil’s people of American deceit: “American Senators tell us that Brazil should not worry, because this is not "surveillance," it's "data collection." They say it is done to keep you safe. They’re wrong.” He tells Brazil what he thinks is the real motive of America’s actions: “These programs were never about terrorism: they're about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They're about power.” He’s cribbing the rhetoric of the Latin American nationalist left—he even complains about espionage against one of their sacred cows, the main national oil company. Hugo Chavez is looking up at him and smiling.