The Flexible Principles of Edward Snowden

June 25, 2013 Topic: IntelligenceSecurity Region: United StatesEcuador Blog Brand: The Buzz

The Flexible Principles of Edward Snowden

A man claiming to defend freedom seeks the protection of those who most readily violate it.

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.="#block-51bf38f9e4b04a1361c94e70">

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?="#block-51bf1112e4b0239b85d8c67f">

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.

There’s a parallel to the Snowden case. Human Rights Watch has accused Ecuador of several of the offenses Snowden seems to oppose. Ecuador’s media watchdogs face a tightening noose of libel laws that serve to keep the political elite’s darker secrets under wraps, the executive branch has meddled in the judiciary, and Ecuadorian demonstrators have faced persecution under overly broad terror laws. And while Assange (and possibly soon Snowden) enjoys Ecuadorian asylum, Ecuador allegedly violates several international agreements on asylum-seeker’s rights.

Snowden might not have adopted Davis’ rank hypocrisy. Yet he shares her naivete, the naivete that many self-proclaimed freedom fighters and defenders of principle have had towards the geopolitical machinations of the nation-states around them. The Communist lands clearly did not give one whit about prison reform. They exploited Davis’ case to make America look bad—and, tacitly, to convince their own citizens that the tyranny they experienced at home was universal. Ecuador does not protect Assange because it has a deep and principled commitment to free speech. Russia and China aren’t eager to ensure that private citizens can live free from surveillance. They all merely want to give Washington a black eye. Edward Snowden contacted the press because he felt his job had turned him into a pawn of people who hold Americans’ liberties in low regard. Yet his flight has turned him into a pawn of self-interested foreign governments. And sometimes pawns are sacrificed—and captured.