The Buzz

The Flexible Principles of Edward Snowden

In his first press appearance on June 9, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden gave every appearance of being a man of principle, arguing that the public deserved a chance to learn how broad the agency’s domestic surveillance was, and that he had revealed himself because “the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government that's a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy.” This was the crux of his decision to go public—that people deserved to know who was revealing the information, as he was bypassing legitimate channels. He added that the government officials who leak secrets anonymously were also violating this principle, but that by leaking selectively and anonymously, they had isolated the surveillance programs from public discussion. Snowden, in his account, had given up his future and his pleasant station in life in defense of the principles those officials ignored. He argued his motivations were patriotic, telling other prospective leakers that “this country is worth dying for.” While his actions were lawless and set an extremely dangerous precedent—as James Joyner aptly pointed out, they would “make every disgruntled Army private or low-level contractor a de facto national classification authority”—Snowden appeared at least to have honest intentions.

Then something shifted. Snowden began leaking information about unquestionably legitimate NSA and joint operations, revealing information-gathering and hacking in China and against foreign heads of state. Snowden implied that the NSA should only gather information against “legitimate military targets,” saying that other operations abroad were “nakedly, aggressively criminal.” He complained that the United States “hasn't declared war on the countries [it is collecting information on]—the majority of them are our allies...And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we're not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police?” These were shockingly naive statements for someone with years of intelligence experience—journalist Jeffrey Goldberg quipped that Snowden was reminiscent of a “guy who joined Goldman Sachs and then was shocked to learn that it was in the business of making money.” Why on earth would Snowden make his living facilitating actions he regarded as evil if he is, indeed, the man of principle he purports to be?

And now it has gotten worse. Snowden is holed up in the VIP lounge of Moscow’s airport. Rumored destinations have included beacons of democracy like Cuba and Venezuela. He’s dashed off an asylum application to Ecuador. Why Ecuador? It’s the same country that hosts WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy. They granted him this protection on the grounds that his human rights were in danger of violation if he were handed over to the notoriously abusive government of Sweden—the noxious Scandinavian pariah-state whose prisons have been compared to “five-star hotels.” Snowden argued that his own rights would face similar danger if he were returned to America, and that accordingly he deserved Ecuadorian protection.

The latest episode immediately brought to mind a pair of photos from the early 1970s. Angela Davis, an American communist, academic and prison-reform activist, had been briefly imprisoned in California after a deadly courthouse shooting in which one of her bodyguards used a gun she had purchased two days prior. While detained, Davis became a cause célèbre in the Communist world, which alleged she was a political prisoner. After a jury found her not guilty, she was freed and began travelling to various Communist countries, where she was photographed shaking hands and making appearances with the crusty Soviet puppets running East Germany. Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would point out that her commitment to prison reform apparently did not extend to prisoners in these Communist states—not even to prisoners whose sawed-off shotguns had never been taped to a judge’s throat.