Edward Snowden – Hero or Traitor?
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
No sir, I do not bite my thumb at you sir, but I do bite my thumb.
A month ago, the world had no idea who Edward Snowden was. Now, after unleashing a maelstrom of controversy with his exposal of the NSA’s metadata tracking and PRISM programs, not to mention his “catch me if you can” game with the United States justice system, he is arguably the most notorious whistleblower-cum-fugitive on the face of the earth.
It doesn’t take much to create dissent within the divisive state of American politics we presently endure, but it is interesting to note how notable figures view the exploits of Mr. Snowden. John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, and John Kerry, the Secretary of State and former Democrat presidential candidate, both agree that Mr. Snowden is a traitor to the country and should be brought to justice immediately. Meanwhile, Glenn Beck, a conservative media figurehead and Tea Party darling, and Michael Moore, a far-left documentarian, have both praised Mr. Snowden’s actions to the high heavens.
So…what do you think?
Is Edward Snowden a hero who exposed the horrifying lack of respect in government for personal privacy that programs like PRISM expose?
Or is he a traitor who endangered the lives of millions of Americans and flushed America’s reputation down the toilet in one fell swoop?
As with many things, the answer is not set in black and white, but rather in shades of gray. It is these shades that this column aims to explore.
First, who is Edward Snowden?
A quick biography: Mr. Snowden dropped out of high school and later received his GED from a community college. He then attempted to join the US Army as a Special Forces cadet but failed to complete the training (apparently there wasn’t a GED equivalent that the Special Forces deemed worthy). He then became a security guard for the NSA, transferring to the CIA to work in computer security. Après ça, he then worked for a private contractor in the employ of the NSA, Booz Allen Hamilton, as a systems administrator. Living in Hawaii, he pulled down an annual salary of $200,000; not bad for a high school dropout with no credentials who had failed to complete anything in his life to that point. It must be noted that Mr. Snowden has a genius-level IQ and is talented with computers, a talent which rarely leads to a college degree, but often to the accumulation of a vast wealth of information.
Then, the fun stuff began. In February of this year, Mr. Snowden got in touch with a British-American journalist named Glenn Greenwald who wrote for the Guardian, a left-wing British newspaper. This only occurred after the Washington Post passed on the story. Yet another argument for the death of American journalism… except on GainesvilleScene, ladies and gentlemen! Where else can you get restaurant recommendations, humorous blog posts, internship stories from ladies you find attractive, and coverage of world events by an unqualified foreigner who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is? Dear reader, your time is being well-spent.
Anyway, through a series of encrypted emails, Mr. Snowden told Mr. Greenwald about a series of NSA programs which infringed heavily upon previously-thought-to-be private communications of American citizens, as well as a more invasive espionage of non-Americans. These programs, volatile news by themselves, also threatened to (i) shatter the Obama administration’s claim that they were the most transparent government in American history, and (ii) confirm the spying upon American citizens long suspected of the Bush-Cheney administration was now a reality. Mr. Greenwald, an astute man, realized that he had the story of the year within his grasp. You can read it here and here.
Before Mr. Snowden transferred documentation to Mr. Greenwald, he took personal leave from his NSA position and flew to Hong Kong. Two weeks later, on June 5, he gave the green light to the journalist, and the chase began. The US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who had previously testified to Congress that the programs exposed by Mr. Snowden did not exist, condemned Mr. Snowden’s “reckless disclosures” and called for his arrest. Many in Congress, including the aforementioned Mr. Boehner, echoed Mr. Clapper’s statements. Surprisingly few called for Mr. Clapper to be charged with perjury.
Justice Department prosecutors issued a warrant for Mr. Snowden’s arrest on June 14, charging him with espionage and theft of government property. There was one little problem… he was in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has an interesting political status. While a capitalist nation with its own political system, judiciary courts, and constitution, it undoubtedly falls within China’s sphere of influence. Nonetheless, as Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the US, it shouldn’t have been an issue to get Mr. Snowden on the first plane to D.C. Except…it was. Citing a clause in the 1996 treaty, Hong Kong claimed that as Mr. Snowden was accused of a political crime, extradition was not permitted. Predictably, this sent the US government into a frenzy, with Secretary of State Kerry implicitly threatening both Hong Kong and China with repercussions if Mr. Snowden were to escape extradition. For his part, Mr. Snowden, armed with a cabal of lawyers, stated his intentions to stay in Hong Kong until “asked to leave.” On June 23, the US government revoked Mr. Snowden’s passport. However, Mr. Snowden, one step ahead, had already been allowed to board a plane to the one destination the United States did not want him to go. Russia.
Since Barack Obama became President of the United States, Russia has become ever more assertive in world affairs. It is clear that the longtime Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, thinks little of Mr. Obama and has behaved in a manner which reflects that opinion. One only has to look at the Syria situation to grasp Mr. Putin’s contempt for Mr. Obama’s handling of US foreign policy. For Russia, Edward Snowden falling into their laps was a godsend. Already criticizing the US for the programs that Mr. Snowden exposed, this opportunity presented Russia with a double whammy; not only do they have to chance to bite their thumbs at the US, but they have a chance to interrogate Mr. Snowden to see what else he knows.
Mr. Putin and his spokesmen have denied that this is the case. Indeed, Mr. Putin has stated that the “Snowden problem” is not one he intends to endure for very long, making it clear that Mr. Snowden will not be seeking asylum in Russia, and if he is to remain in Russia without explusion, he is to “cease his work aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners.” This has caused Mr. Snowden to enter panic mode, penning several letters to embassies around the world seeking asylum. His letter to the Polish ambassador spoke of his fear that he would not receive a fair trial and the real possibility of life in prison or the death penalty. Such asylum requests have been summarily refused; countries such as India, France, Spain, Italy, and over 20 others have denied Mr. Snowden access. Nonetheless, nothing is stopping Mr. Snowden from returning to the US to present his side of the story to an American court. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Snowden shows no sign of taking up that option.
Quite apart from his country-hopping, Edward Snowden has made headlines for other reasons. In an online Q-and-A which took place when he was still in Hong Kong, Mr. Snowden, among other things, reiterated his belief that the NSA egregiously overstepped its mark, explained that his reason for staying abroad was that American hyperbole had ruined his chances at a fair trial, and claimed that his actions did nothing to endanger individuals, only the existence of the programs themselves. He has continued to leak further US espionage activities, including the revelation that the PRISM program extends to Hong Kong and China, and that the US bugged EU offices in Washington and at the UN building in New York. Such revelations have prompted William Binney, a fellow NSA whistleblower and original supporter of Mr. Snowden’s actions, to remark that “he is transitioning from whistleblower to traitor.”
The question remains, was such a transition possible? From the second he transferred documentation of the NSA metadata program to Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden was one of two things; a whistleblower or a traitor. What you believe is a matter of personal opinion. Here are the facts: were it not for the actions of Mr. Snowden, we would not be talking about the NSA programs he exposed, Big Brother-esque programs with scope way beyond what we originally thought. The thin line between privacy and security is one that society has had to walk since the advent of the Internet and 9/11, and if Mr. Snowden hadn’t clicked the send button that fateful day, we would still be in a state of ignorance. Thanks to his actions, this country, and indeed the world, has an opportunity to truly think about the implications of programs with the capability of monitoring everything we do with our cellphones and computers (programs that, incidentally, are not unique to the American NSA). For that at least, we should be grateful to Mr. Snowden.
However, his actions since are less praiseworthy. Exposing the clandestine activities of American spy agencies, simply because he doesn’t believe in spying of any kind, shows a darker side to Mr. Snowden. It shows a man drunk on his own power; he realizes that he is already past the point of no return so he may as well expose other government secrets he disagrees with. What’s the US going to do, call him a traitor?. As David Brooks wrote in a New York Times piece, “the founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed.”
His alliances have stretched the limits of hypocrisy. Mr. Snowden justified his actions by his supposed disgust of the US’s attack of privacy, a lack of accountability in government, and a libertarian desire to give power back to the people. So where does he go when he’s been rumbled? First Hong Kong, a puppet of the Chinese government; a government which has no semblance of democracy or public accountability, infringes on private life and independent thought every single day, and treats political criticism as a treasonous act worthy of imprisonment. Next he goes to Russia, also not fond of individual freedom, and a nation dominated by a an ex-KGB dictator who has more in common with Joseph Stalin than Joe Biden. He is aiming to court favor with Ecuador, a South American socialist experiment which treats dissenting journalists like rabid dogs. It is clear that Mr. Snowden is placing more importance on self-preservation than staying true to his espoused ideology.
It is the opinion of this column that Edward Snowden is not a hero, nor is he a traitor. His actions in the beginning may have been heroic, his subsequent deeds may have been treacherous. However, all things considered, Mr. Snowden has not earned either label. Rather, it is evident that Mr. Snowden is nothing more than a scared boy who lashed out at a system he didn’t like without fully comprehending the consequences. He has since been on the run, growing more aware by each day that he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Mr. Snowden can run all he likes, but it is becoming apparent that his routes of escape are closing.
The best thing that Edward Snowden can do is turn himself in to face justice in the courts. Regrettably, he seems to lack the moral fiber it would require to undertake such action. Maybe Mr. Snowden began with good intentions, but the path to hell is littered with such trinkets. It appears that, day by day, Mr. Snowden is running out of ideas. In order for our society to truly find closure with the scandal he began, Mr. Snowden must be brought to face the music.
And the fat lady is approaching the stage.
Photo courtesy of: abc.com