LOS ANGELES, June 13, 2013—The outrage, skepticism, and hero worship surrounding former NSA contractor and PRISM leaker Edward Snowden is fascinating. If nothing else, it reveals our polarization reflex.
It is human nature to immediately place people and things into categories in order to make sense of them. And there is much about this young man that does not make sense.
To some, Edward Snowden is a hero who infiltrated and exposed a government structure intent on spying on its people without their knowledge or consent. To the NSA, and other covert and counterintelligence agencies, he is a traitor who has threatened national security and has made it easier for our enemies to target us. To others (myself included), he is a poseur. A pretender to patriotism and attention-seeker, who has a hidden agenda in his leaked information and subsequent flight from justice to Hong Kong.
Douglas Rushkoff editorialized on CNN online that Snowden deserves the hero designation: “Snowden is a hero because he realized that our very humanity was being compromised by the blind implementation of machines in the name of making us safe. Unlike those around him, who were too absorbed in their task to reflect on their actions and pause in their pursuit of digital omniscience, Snowden allowed himself to be “disturbed” by what he was doing.”
The denizens of online activism are supporting their hero through fundraising and petitions. A Facebook employee has contributed money to Snowden’s legal fees, and room and board (wherever that may be) in Hong Kong. One petition on the Whitehouse.gov site is demanding that President Obama pardon him, while another that commands us to “Stand with Edward Snowden,” has close to 900,000 signatures. This petition cites the poor treatment of Bradley Manning, the last high-profile leaker of government secrets, as cause for concern that government authorities may treat Snowden even worse.
The Nation has reported on protests in New York’s Union Square and plans for a Hong Kong support rally requesting Beijing not extradite Snowden back to the U.S.
So Snowden has become the classic lightning rod for those ill at ease with government overreach, those who feel human rights would be violated if he was extradited back to the U.S., and those who just love an anarchist and are rooting for him.
Government and other media outlets are in full attack mode, pointing out rather obvious holes in Snowden’s story and history, and mounting investigations into just how he managed to get such a high-level security clearance. Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker has dubbed Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” If investigations by the CIA and the DOJ work out as they desire, that may well happen.
We know Snowden never finished high school, but took some community college classes in Maryland where he allegedly honed his computer prowess to such a degree that a covert intelligence agency found him to be a viable candidate. At 19, Snowden enlisted in the Army and started basic training at Fort Benning in June of 2004. According to Army spokesman Col. David H. Patterson, Jr., he declared his intent to qualify for the Special Forces, but never followed through with it. He failed to complete basic training and was discharged in September. With this clear inability to complete what he started, how did the then 20-year-old get into the CIA, let alone into a high-level intelligence firm like Booz Allen Hamilton? This has led the Congressional Intelligence Committee to investigate the clearance process and the potential need for overhaul. Add this to the list of government scandals, missteps, and overreaches that is siphoning from the actual work of governing the country.
In terms of the NSA’s PRISM, I really don’t know why everyone is so surprised. Since the inception of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security, we have seen a push toward security controls that rival George Orwell’s 1984. All in the name of “keeping us safe”. Perhaps we are safer, perhaps not. Radicals and crazies continue to test this, as the Boston Marathon Bombers have made evident. However, if anyone has been paying attention, Snowden’s claims are neither new or revelatory; they just give deeper insight into the scope and breadth of the enterprise that we were previously not privy to.
Snowden’s claim that, “I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under,” rings false. What exactly did he think he was signing up for? Hollywood interpretations notwithstanding, what exactly did he think the CIA and the NSA did? It’s not like he worked for the FBI, whose mission is fairly well-stated and documented. Snowden claims he worked for both the CIA and NSA for over six years, and these agencies are known for their veiled secrets and methods, supposedly for the sake of national security. So his come to Jesus moment strains credulity.
Snowden’s defection to Hong Kong is also telling. Hong Kong is technically under Chinese auspices, designated a Special Administrative Region with its own mini-constitution and laws. So Snowden said to the South China Morning Post, “People who think I made a mistake in picking Hong Kong as a location misunderstand my intentions,” he said. “I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality… My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate.”
According to the Department of State website the U.S. has substantial “economic and political interests” in Hong Kong, and part of the U.S.’ support for Hong Kong involves their partnership in fighting counterterrorism and “broadening law enforcement cooperation”. So what makes Snowden think that the people and courts of Hong Kong will get the opportunity to decide his fate? Did those tapped NSA records also reveal something that would prevent Hong Kong, a cooperating U.S. partner, from extraditing him? One human rights activist uttered the words “political dissident” in defending Snowden’s case. A Political dissident is generally someone oppressed by their country for their political views, rather than someone who knowingly broke the law to expose their government; more stretching of the truth for someone who claims he wanted to reveal truth just does not wash.
After outing himself to The Guardian and the Washington Post, Snowden went underground, then resurfaced, and decided to talk some more. Snowden has made further claims that the NSA had launched more than 61,000 hacking operations globally, including attempts to spy on hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and in mainland China. Whether there is validity in this claim or not, the fact that he had this knowledge, yet is trying to seek asylum in the very country that he claims is the aggrieved party, is very suspicious.
Obviously the House Intelligence Committee thinks so, as they are looking deeper into whether he had ties with China. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) spoke to reporters yesterday on this very topic. “Clearly, we’re going to make sure that there’s a thorough scrub of what his China connections are. We need to ask a lot more questions about his motives, his connections, where he ended up, why he is there, how is he sustaining himself while he is there, and is the Chinese government fully cooperating.”
Only time will reveal Edward Snowden’s true motivation and what his fate may be. As of this moment, he alternates between villain, hero, and poseur, and he should not be lauded or vilified until everything unfolds.
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