Jeffrey LewisA Few Words on Ed Snowden

If you follow me on Twitter or happen to be friends with me on Facebook, then you know I don’t think very much of Mr. Edward Snowden. From the beginning of this story, I have said that Snowden is more like Phillip Agee, than Daniel Ellsberg.  I do not consider him a whistleblower, but rather an agent of a hostile power, in this case Moscow.

It occurred to me the other day, however, that I’ve never set down in writing the precise nature of my concerns about Snowden and his actions. Now that Snowden is doing propaganda shorts for the Russians and the Guardian has joined Walter Duranty as a Pulitzer Prize winner, I figured I should say a few words about why I don’t think Snowden is on the level.

I have long been interested in intelligence for personal and professional reasons.  On a personal basis, I am a lapsed philosopher concerned largely with questions of epistemology — how we know things.  Intelligence is a fascinating area of applied epistemology.  Since one is primarily concerned with secrets — things you are not supposed to know — determining whether something in the intelligence realm is true or not is pretty interesting.  One labors under all kinds of arbitrary constraints on knowing, from official secrecy, unreliable first person accounts, inferences based on imagery and other data, and finally the possibility that the other side is feeding disinformation into the system.  The “wilderness of mirrors” that drove James Jesus Angleton insane is precisely what I find most interesting.

On a professional basis, most of what we know about foreign nuclear weapons programs comes from intelligence. Understanding national security decision making requires understanding the intelligence process that informs (or fails to inform) those decisions.  The fiasco in Iraq is the obvious example, but there are others.  Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrohkin’s The Sword and Shield offers a pretty damning picture of how the Soviet intelligence service controlled the Politbureau by controlling the flow of information to its members.

So, I think a lot about spies, and spying.

Before I start on Ed Snowden, I should say a few things about Soviet, and now Russian, intelligence services.

First, Moscow and its friendly intelligence services run spies, as does the United States. Intelligence agencies also collect defectors.  This may seem obvious, but it is worth remembering that Rick Ames and Robert Hansen really were on Moscow’s payroll.  (To say nothing of the illegals then and now.) The Cubans ran Anna Montes, and happily supported Phillip Agee.  Although calling someone a spy or traitor is a distressingly common political tactic, that does not mean that there are not spies and traitors. Joe McCarthy was a demagogue who made many false accusations.  That doesn’t mean that the Rosenbergs, or Alger Hiss, were innocent.

Second, Moscow has an irritating tendency to try and weasel its way into Western groups that favor peace and disarmament. The most famous instance is the Generals for Peace in the 1980s — none of whom realized the East Germans were funding their activities.  Despite what the extreme right-wing will tell you, the vast majority of civil society groups, including peace and disarmament groups, are impervious to Russian efforts — but those of us interested in a better world have all been approached by the odd Russian “diplomat” who wants to discuss friendship between our two countries. Once in a while, the Russians find a fool who doesn’t give the so-called diplomat’s business card straight to the FBI.

Third, Moscow and its friendly intelligence services would often encourage individuals to seek specific positions to gather intelligence. The Cubans, for instance, encouraged Anna Montes to leave the Department of Justice for other jobs with greater access to classified information.  She ended up at the Defense Intelligence Agency. The Soviets did the same with Christopher Boyce (aka The Falcon), encouraging him to learn Russian or Chinese, then get a job in intelligence. (FYI: Boyce thinks Snowden is a kindred spirit. No kidding.)

Fourth, the Russians tend to launder intelligence to hide sources of information. So, for example, Robert Hansen apparently betrayed in 1980 a GRU officer named Dmitri Polyakov who was working for the United States.  Moscow did not act against Polyakov until he was compromised a second time by Aldrich Ames in 1985.  When Ames was arrested, the question of who gave up Polyakov to the Soviets seemed clear — even though it wasn’t.

Now, about Mr. Snowden.  I find his story curious.  It goes something like this:

– In 2007, Snowden worked for the CIA in Geneva, where he soured on the methods of the United States intelligence community. He considered leaking some information but holds off.

– In 2009, Snowden took a job working for an NSA contractor in Japan. His disappointment with Obama hardened his resolve to leak information.

– In 2013, he took a job with Booz Allen in Hawaii for the express purpose of collecting US secrets that he will leak.

– After three months, in May 2013, he fled to Hong Kong because it has a strong commitment to free speech.

– After Hong Kong made it clear he must leave, Wikileaks arranged asylum and travel documents to Ecuador.  But the United States canceled his passport, which meant Moscow was legally bound to prevent his transit to safe harbor in Ecuador.

– After being stranded in the transit zone by the United States cancellation of his passport, he has no choice but to ask the Russians for asylum.

– His travel companion, Sarah Harrison, who does have valid travel documents, is allowed to remain in Russia through at least October 2013. (She goes to Germany in November 2013.)

This story makes no sense if you stop to think about it.

In 2007, Snowden is ready to leak — about what exactly?  He hasn’t worked for NSA yet. He admits that he has only information about “people, not machines and systems.”

The claim about Obama is also ridiculous.  By the time Obama was the most likely Democratic nominee in mid-2008, he publicly supported the very FISA deal that was the subject of Snowden’s first leak.  (Greenwald will remember this as he launched a shameful campaign against Mort Halperin for supporting the same compromise, falsely accusing Halperin of trading his principles for a job in the Obama Administration.)  The “Obama has feet of clay” line is just hand-waving to distract those of us on the left who were disappointed by the balance struck by the Obama Administration on national security and civil liberties. Oh, Ed, we understand where you are coming from.  Barack Obama is just so disappointing, that I want to flee to Russia … oh, wait, that is insane.

The fact that Snowden sought jobs for the express purpose of collecting secrets ought to be a major red flag — why not just leak what he had from Japan that caused his attitude to “harden”?  Snowden’s behavior after Geneva seems awfully similar to how the Cubans handled Anna Montes, going from one job to another, taking requests for information.

And the flight to Hong Kong?  He said he fled to Hong Kong because it “has a strong tradition of free speech.”  Oh, for f*ck’s sake. Does he know anything about Hong Kong?  Does he know its not a British colony any more?

And transiting Moscow? The US canceled his passport, true.  But the Russians could have let him go to Ecuador. They stopped him because he is an amazing intelligence prize.

By the way, Snowden had other options: Hong Kong has direct flights to Jakarta — Indonesia is a democratic, non-aligned country which has no extradition treaty with the United States and a population that was genuinely upset by US intelligence efforts in that country.  But no — Ecuador, via Moscow and Havana, seemed like a much better idea to him.

Then we are supposed to believe the Russians, having detained him in transit, left him in the Sheremetyevo transit zone without debriefing him.  Right, and his Russian lawyer doesn’t run pro-Kremlin astroturf NGOs.

The same officious Russians, suddenly all Swiss about paperwork, do however allow Sarah Harrison — the Wikileaks representative who accompanied him to Moscow — to remain in Russia with no visa.  I’ve been asking on Twitter and Facebook for months how and why she was still in Russia, but no reporters seem interested in that little wrinkle. Harrison finally announced that she can’t return to the UK, but why?  What crime did she commit by meeting with Snowden or taking a flight from Hong Kong to Ecuador? Liz Gold comes to mind, though perhaps that gives her too much credit.

The suspension of disbelief necessary to swallow this story is impressive.

Let me offer a completely speculative scenario based on no evidence at all, just past behavior of Soviet and Russian intelligence.  My only question is whether this is more, or less, plausible than Snowden’s story.

A young CIA employee in Geneva becomes disillusioned and, one way or another, finds himself taking money from the Russians. Maybe he saw some bad things.  Maybe he’s just the sort of disgruntled employee who starts spying because it gratifies his sense that he’s smarter than the people around and above him.

The Russians encourage him to get a job at an NSA contractor in Japan, then a contractor in Hawaii — just as the Cubans and Soviets encourages Montes and Boyce to seek certain jobs.

He collects a lot of information, much of which is very harmful to the United States, if published.  This information is most harmful if, like Phillip Agee’s memoir, the author is seen as a “whistleblower” not a defector. Snowden goes to Hong Kong, where the Russians can handle him from the consulate.  After giving information to the Chinese, he heads to Moscow. The whole story with Ecuador and Wikileaks simply allows Snowden to keep up the pretense of being a whistleblower “stuck” in Russia, where he’s useful propaganda tool.

In this version of events, some of what Snowden reveals, he collected.  But Moscow can also safely launder information collected from other sources through Snowden.  They might even make up a few things.

I have no way of knowing whether Snowden’s version or this very generic spy story is true.  But Snowden’s version is a hell of lot harder to believe.  There are other possibilities — maybe Snowden did find himself in Hong Kong, way over his head, only to have Wikileaks deliver him to the Russians.  (Notice who had serious money problems, but now is flush after someone got a television show on RT and his political party took Moscow’s line on Ukraine?)  In this version, Wikileaks is just the Communist Party USA, funded from Moscow and Snowden is a dupe.

As best I can tell, the United States intelligence community does not think Snowden was a Russian asset, but I am with Edward Lucas on this.

Whatever his motives, Snowden had another option: If Snowden had limited his disclosures to the truly newsworthy — such as revealing abuses conducted under the 2008 FISA reauthorization — instead of targeting legitimate intelligence activities and if Snowden, like Ellsberg, had given the information to a member of Congress like Ron Wyden and remained in the United States to face the music, he’d be a whistleblower and hero.

But, instead, each thing he has done since fleeing the United States, from the scope of his disclosures to his softball questions to Vladimir Putin, persuade me that he is not acting in the best interests of our democracy.


  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Thanks, Jeffrey! A lot of us have been thinking this way, but you’ve spelled it out.

  2. random guy (History)

    Interesting take. In the end I’m far less interested in Mr. Snowden, treasonous criminal or otherwise, than I am in the content of the leaks and what they say about intelligence oversight, modern privacy rights and the new digital state..

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I certainly make extensive use of the cables released by Wikileaks, even if I have reasons to suspect their motives in leaking them.

      Caution, however, is required in evaluating certain materials. For example, I am not sure all the stories attributed to Snowden are based on evidence that he gathered and I do worry about some of them turning out to be false.

      But the documents showing abuses under the FISA reauthorization appear to be real and reinforce my sense that Feinstein (and Obama) were wrong to agree to it.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Worst case scenario: Snowden is an out-and-out liar and forged some document that says the NSA did a Really Bad Thing that they never actually did. This so shocks the public that Congress passes a law saying you can’t do that. The NSA continues to comply with the new law.

  3. krepon (History)

    The champion of freedom of information and fearless opponent of Big Brother finds refuge in Moscow?

    • ajax (History)

      Snark aside, I think the choice is pragmatic. You need a country that won’t truck with the US on extradition and somewhere resistant to US economic and political coerion. So China, Russia, the handful of populist anti-US states in SA.

  4. Andrew (History)

    I think the real story is a lot less espionage intrigue and a lot more narcissism…

    If Snowden really were such a Clancy-esque figure, wouldn’t someone with his abilities and access could have a much easier(and perhaps safer) time sending sensitive information overseas from the comfort of a desktop computer, with his anonymity intact? Based on the description of how he accessed and pulled data from the NSA network, it seemed fairly simple for him to evade detection, even for a long period of time. I think he just saw the opportunity for the spotlight and went for it, hence his grand introductory youtube video. I think the motivation really does stop there, and his flight to Russia was more of an afterthought/frantic, forced decision.

    But to echo what random guy said, I think the individual Snowden is far less important than the revealing information he made public (despite Snowden’s own delusions of grandeur). So maybe the title “self-indulgent, misguided whistle-blower” is more appropriate.

    • ajax (History)

      This is one area I’d like Jeffrey’s opinion on. Certainly on international level, the revalations of NSA spying is very damaging to trust between allies and sets back US internet freedom agenda championed by former SOS Clinton but I think domestically, it has done the US good to open this debate about the rights to privacy. Unless one is an unbending statist, you can understand the outrage generated by this whole event.

  5. Shane (History)

    Like random guy and Andrew, I don’t think the issue is as clear-cut as you make it out to be.

    I’m as appalled as anyone that a member of IC would publicly disclose our intelligence operations against foreign governments/businesses/citizens. Everyone spies, so do we, except we are really, really good at it. In this sense, Snowden’s revelations are just like those of Montes, Ames, et al.

    The comparison ends at data collection on US citizens. While this data collection may have been done as part of legitimate espionage activities, it’s still data collection. That’s weird. You shouldn’t be able do that. If the NSA is so skilled, which it is, they should be able to find a way to complete their mission (which I hope they do really, really well) without collecting a bunch of data on Americans. And without Snowden, we really wouldn’t know about this stuff, particularly average Americans who aren’t in policy circles.

    So, has Snowden has Snowden engaged in hypocrisy and treachery? Absolutely. But did he also do a public service by letting us know about government activities against the private communications of Americans? Yep.

    I know your article just addresses what most of us think is misplaced, creepy, and naive hagiography, but I think the picture you paint is a little simplistic. Snowden can be an important whistle-blower and a grade-A douche-bag at the same time.

  6. Paul (History)

    I think expecting someone to stay in the US and face the music after the Manning case is nuts. Yes you could declare him a hero, but having 30-odd years in solitary confinement for the whistleblower just to make your conscience feel better isn’t attractive. I think I would bail too if I was in the same situation.

    And aren’t you forgetting the US ordering a diplomatic flight out of the sky in Austria with fighter jets? It doesn’t suggest he’ll be treated civilly if caught.

    In fact, he matches the profile of nearly every whistleblower I’ve met: he realizes there is a problem, can’t figure out what to do about it, decides to go public but has absolutely no end game of what happens next, and also doesn’t realize what the long term consequences could be to himself.

  7. John Schilling (History)

    Regarding Snowden as a Russian asset, I think Hanlon’s Razor applies here. I don’t see anything in Snowden’s behavior that is beyond the bounds of plausible human stupidity. And I can think of many more effective ways to use such an asset, if I had one on my payroll. So if it comes to believing that Snowden is a fool, or that the FSB is a bunch of fools, I lean towards the former.

    The FSB efficiently exploiting the useful fool who crossed their path, yes, that certainly seems to be happening. Probably since about the time Snowden showed up in Hong Kong.

    And for that matter, Wikileaks is an organization that has been practically begging for FSB penetration and exploitation from day one; even if we were to assume that Assange and company were honest idealists, the relative power imbalance suggests extreme skepticism is warranted on that front.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I cannot exclude the possibility that he is extraordinarily naive and foolish, but I am very, very troubled by the decision to seek employment for the purpose of accessing secrets and choice of Hong Kong as an initial landing spot. If reports that he visited, or resided, at the Russian consulate in Hong Kong are true, that deepens my concern.

      But, yes, Hanlon’s razor — “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” — is an important caution.

    • Cheryl Rofer (History)

      OTOH, the appearance of stupidity can be a great cover. And stupidity can be manipulated by smarter people.

  8. j_kies (History)

    Snowden’s acts are water under the bridge (with scum on top) lessons learned include structural flaws:

    Money and influence peddling has made it into the decision processes at all levels of the Intelligence Community. Contracting for intelligence analysts is an open invitation to corruption; the metric becomes delivering paid hours vice professional expertise acting in the best interests of the nation as sworn servants of the people. Contractor toolset advertising material released by Mr Snowden making overly broad claims for how analysts could perform collection tasking and multiple source analysis from the desktop represents inappropriate exceptions to sound practices like compartmentalization for CI and damage limitation. The current fetish for ‘cyber’ is used as justification to clear contractors and privates with computer/internet backgrounds despite risk factors that would normally never pass background checks.

    At the end, the NSA over-reach looks to be entirely a waste as pattern recognition techniques are unable to find a pattern without a pre-existing basis pattern. The entire NSA scrape of the internet, email, metadata and the like seems useless to prevent terrorism as at best they can try to sweep up the remainder of the network after the attack is concluded. (Such focus detracts from proper police / security work c.f. the Boston marathon bomber) Vastly more effective means to spend budgets exist than ‘cyber’ and no part of that should be contracting the security of this country to private interests in the name of Mammon.

  9. Barry Blechman (History)

    Bravo, Jeffrey. If there ever were any doubts about Snowden, his appearance on the “Late Night with Mr. Crush Ukraine Putin,” TV show should put an end to them.

  10. Scott Monje (History)

    If this is a preplanned Russian operation, then the question becomes: Why would the Russians do this? If they wanted to know what the NSA was up to and what it was capable of, then paying Snowden to pass them his thumb drive quietly would do the trick. Making everything public undoes the benefit of steeling the information because the US then knows that it’s been stolen and will be prompted to change their procedures (albeit, that could take awhile).* I suppose you could argue that they planned for this to be so controversial that Congress would put a stop to it and prevent the NSA from doing something that the Russians aren’t capable of mimicking, but that’s a bit too sophisticated. Is it all just to make the US look bad? Then what would that really change in the end? Would Russia benefit in a concrete way? Is Europe really going to go its own way out of pique? I don’t know. I think I tend to lean toward John Schilling. This fell into their laps while already in progress, and they’re taking advantage of it any way they can.

    *When the Chicago Tribune, in the middle of the Battle of Midway, published that the US Navy had anticipated the Japanese fleet movements and listed the names of specific Japanese ships engaged in the battle, the Japanese realized that their codes had been broken and changed them all, even the newest ones, within weeks.

  11. Bradley Laing (History)

    When the Chicago Tribune, in the middle of the Battle of Midway, published that the US Navy had anticipated the Japanese fleet movements and listed the names of specific Japanese ships engaged in the battle, the Japanese realized that their codes had been broken and changed them all, even the newest ones, within weeks.

    —According to the book “The First Casualty” by Philip Knightly, that is not what happened.

  12. Bradley Laing (History)

    On 31 August 1942, Representative Elmer J. Holland stated on the floor of the House of Representatives:

    “A bill of indictment means a public trial, Mr. Speaker. A public trial means public testimony. And public testimony in a court of law, with skilled counsel representing the defendants, means that military secrets, however vital, must be revealed if they are relevant to the defense of those accused.

    “It is public knowledge that the Tribune story, published also in the New York Daily News and the Washington Times-Herald, tipped off the Japanese high command that somehow our Navy had secured and broken the secret code of the Japanese Navy.

    “That is a priceless advantage in war—to know your enemy’s plans through your knowledge of his code.

    “Three days after the Tribune story was published, the Japs changed their code.”

    We now know that whatever changes the Japanese made in their code JN-25-C were neither major nor severe, for we continued to read successive generations of that code to the end of the war

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Bradley, I’m not quite sure what your objection is. The Tribune story revealed that codes had been broken, and the Japanese changed their codes. My understanding was that it took several months to break them again. The reporter was not indicted because the Navy refused to say in open court exactly which details in the story had been secrets and didn’t want any more secrets getting out.

      For a new chapter in the story, the Justice Department revealed last year that the Office of Legal Counsel determined, in relation to this case, that the government could indict the reporter, the editor, the publisher, and the company for violations of the Espionage Act. It further held that the newspaper’s wide distribution aggravated the offense.

      Reporters like to tell themselves that the First Amendment saves them from such things. Indeed, they get away with a lot and maybe it’s a good thing, but their protections still aren’t written into the law or Supreme Court decisions (apart from the ban on prior constraint).

  13. Mike (History)

    J: The major fail in your theory is that he does not need to be debriefed by Russia and there really is no good reason for them to have wanted him in Russia if he was indeed their asset.

    Snowden transmitted all his documents to Greenwald et al securely. Why not the Russians too? Months before the first revelations became public?

    Why does Russian wish to show any involvement at all? Why not, as you suggested, send him to Indonesia? Why did they not previously arrange for him to go directly to Ecuador safely?

    • Cheryl Rofer (History)

      US asset sends an emergency call: I think I’m about to be outed. Russia will respond; they take care of their spies as long as those spies are of use to them. And Ed’s righteous pleadings would be of use to them, cf. last week’s performance in Putin’s yearly fully-scripted question-answering.

  14. Arrigo (History)

    A slightly more ITsec-oriented view follows.

    1) Snowden’s data collection feats border on the miraculous as they cross numerous obvious compartments, an impression reinforced by the codewords seen on the slides. There is no way a lowly systems administrator, and one sufficiently stupid to trust Lavabit for his email, would be capable of such a feat,

    2) the data which has been so far exposed is, technically, material on capabilities the ITsec industry has always suspected. Take the tapping of undersea fibre cables: the CIA, NSA and Navy operation IVY BELLS in the 60’s was “tapping”, this is syphoning data out from routers which we knew since at least 1993 on, for example, the Columbus cable,

    3) was there anything new in the ITsec sphere? Only if you were naive beyond belief and, objectively, should have chosen a career in something else. Of course some of the TAO revelations confirmed our worst predictions or suspicions but, again, there was no anti-gravity drive…

    4) the only real shock was, perhaps, the FISA abuses but this is an ITsec view so perhaps a lawyer would similarly suggest that it was at least suspected if not quietly known,

    5) In the US you have a definite love for simple, linear, explanations but in this case the more Machiavellian design fits: are you sure Snowden isn’t just a “useful idiot” who has been planted with documents? Are you sure this is not part of a more sophisticated ruse to quiet a rising attention towards the IC which needed to be stopped? Feed them disposable old techniques to divert attention from more sophisticated techniques? Or even a more brutally political view: faction A vs. faction B. Faction A loves contractors, faction B does not: faction B arranges for a huge leak caused by a contractor…

    6) Finally a closing remark: it could be total and absolute incompetence giving Snowden unfettered access to all the data he collected but that would be worthy of a Stalinist purge of the IC to clean it up. My take is: sort-of principled narcissistic lad nudged towards disposable data and then pounced upon by both Wikileaks and the Russians with their own agenda…

  15. Bradley Laing (History)

    My understanding was that it took several months to break them again. The reporter was not indicted because the Navy refused to say in open court exactly which details in the story had been secrets and didn’t want any more secrets getting out.

    —my understanding is that the Japanese *did* not change the codes after the article was published, and I will find online articles saying so, and link to them.

  16. Bradley Laing (History)

    The Japanese apparently never benefited from this searing public controversy. According to Prados:

    The Japanese had no easy means of ascertaining what is written in the Chicago Tribune. There were no known agents in the United States. The diplomatic corps, including naval attaches, was sequestered at a resort in Hot Springs, West Virginia and had all American news sources they wanted. But at this precise moment, they were beginning to move to New York for repatriation and access was cut off during the period of transit. Publication programs ran by embassies in South America were curtailed because the Japanese in a number of these countries were also being sequestered and repatriated, and while at the same time, the Chicago Tribune was not The New York Times and was not watched acidulously for intelligence.29

    – See more at:

    • Scott Monje (History)

      First, I’m not sure what to make of Prados’s statement. He seems to be saying that he doesn’t know how the Japanese would have found out, which is not the same as saying that they did not find out. And stories about the story were repeated in various publications for weeks, so I’m not sure how much the timing or the centrality of the Chicago Tribune counts.

      Second, the official NSA history of the Battle of Midway has this to say:

      “OP-20-G maintained it was no mere coincidence that within a few weeks of the Johnston expose drastic changes were made in virtually all Japanese codes and ciphers including the Japanese Fleet General-Purpose System, which changed on 15 August, only two months into the current cipher. Consistent with these changes, navy monitors also noted the omission of message serial numbers beginning on 15 August and a major change in the Japanese callsign system on 1 October 1942.

      “All of the Japanese refinements were justifiably described by OP-20-G analysts as serious threats to their capability to produce current intelligence.”

      Third, this all gets away from the main point. I was saying that the publication of the NSA documents would lead the NSA to change its procedures, which reduces the value of obtaining the documents in the first place. This suggests to me that it was not Russian intelligence that decided to have them published. As an aside, I noted that the Japanese changed their codes after a public revelation, but the details of that are not central to the point.

  17. Bradley Laing (History)

    —-This technical article about the Japanese Naval Code at least seems to back up my belief that the Japanese did not introduce a new code in response to the Chicago Tribune article about Midway.

    —It is, however, a dense read, and if someone can prove me wrong by reading the whole article, I will apologize for putting you on the wrong track.

    “JN-25 fact sheet, Version 1.1 September 2004.

    by Geoffrey Sinclair”

    • Scott Monje (History)

      This article confirms that the codes were changed on August 15 and gives more detail as to how, but it adds a possible alternative explanation by noting that Japanese code books had been captured on Guadalcanal earlier that month.

  18. Mark Gubrud (History)


    This is rather sad. You talk about your interest in epistemology, and here we have a post that is full of baseless conspiracy theorizing. I don’t normally mind a bit of speculation, but this has real political consequences, including, possibly, for the fate of Snowden.

    First third of this post you are talking about other people, mostly from the Cold War era. Finally you get to Snowden’s story, which you find “curious.” I don’t see what’s so hard to understand.

    What is so curious about the idea that an idealistic, politically naive and unconnected young man develops doubts about the work he’s involved in and the policies of his government, but remains conflicted and only gradually comes to the point of decision about taking high-risk, life- and history-changing action?

    Maybe when he took the job at Booz he still had not made up his mind what, exactly, he was going to do, but he had decided he wanted to be able to get more access and information. What is so hard to believe about his having already learned enough, working in the system, to know where a good location would be?

    What is so curious about the idea that he was disappointed in Obama? The fact that candidate Obama had publicly supported the FISA deal proves what? Was Snowden aware of that, and when? Or is it only one part of a much larger picture that finally soured Snowden on Obama and the NSA?

    Of course the “strong commitment to free speech” was mostly a political appeal to Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to give him asylum. There’s probably something to it, notwithstanding that the “commitment” could be revoked on a word from Beijing. Obviously, Snowden chose to go there betting that China would resist US pressure to hand him back. Just as obviously, it wasn’t such a great bet.

    So he goes to the Russian consulate because he hopes they will protect him… what’s so weird about that? And the Russians entertain him for a while, not quite sure what he is. Then he arranges to go to Ecuador because it seems like the new best bet.

    You say he could have gone to Jakarta. This guy is facing the prospect of being taken back to the US and locked up for the rest of his life. He knows this would also undercut his public credibility, which is very important to him – that’s why he went public instead of just leaking anonymously. So, if in fact he considered Indonesia, I don’t know why he decided against it, but I do know it wouldn’t have taken much.

    Of course the Russians left him stranded in the airport because they too were not sure if they should let him go free, cut a deal with the US, or maybe could pressure him into giving them something. No doubt they saw him as a potential “intelligence prize.”

    Is it so hard to believe that he just didn’t break, and after a while they decided it was in their best interest to reap the propaganda benefit of giving him temporary asylum?

    Why did they let Sarah Harrison stay? Why not? Maybe they hoped they could get something out of Snowden through her. This does not even require that she was consciously an asset.

    I do not see that your incredulity at Snowden’s “story” rests on anything other than prejudice or is supported by anything other than rhetoric like “The suspension of disbelief necessary to swallow this story is impressive.”

    Then you offer your own theory (or theories) based on zero evidence.

    Finally, AFAIK Snowden asked only one question and it is consistent with his public identity and concerns – he asked Putin about mass surveillance by the Russian government. Maybe you would have asked about the Budapest memorandum or the little green men or some other hardball, but nobody is threatening to give you the Manning treatment.

    At least you admit you “have no way of knowing” that Snowden isn’t telling the truth. I also don’t have any relevant special knowledge, but I’ll tell you why I think Snowden is telling the truth.

    First, his story makes perfect sense. Second, I listen to the man, and he makes sense. It’s clear what he’s about. He saw pervasive surveillance of and even interference in society at large. He saw that this was a violation of public trust and a threat to democracy itself. He did what he did, and he decided to tell the world who he is and why he did it. If he’s lying, he is sure a good actor.

    Curious, perhaps, that there is anybody left who’s really that straight. But he’s the type; a dropout IT whiz with Libertarian ideals. Call me a dupe, a fool, incredibly naive; and find clever, snarky ways of putting that, but it all makes perfect sense to me.

    • Anon2 (History)


      I found Jeffrey’s article interesting and well written.

      I also remain concerned about the damage to the intelligence system caused by Snowden, whatever his motivations. I view intelligence as a mechanism to defend the country against attack. I would like to be defended, and I can accept the loss of privacy in exchange for the increase in safety. Snowden’s turning the mechanism inside out places us at greater risk of a bad outcome.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Unfortunately, the loss of privacy does not necessarily correlate with increased safety. One of the revelations of the Snowden leaks is that the NSA has been putting a whole lot of effort into things that have not thwarted any real attacks and are extremely unlikely to thwart any real attacks in the future. As with e.g. peacetime armies, they have been doing what is fun, easy, and would have won them the last war, rather than putting in the effort to prepare for the next one.

      I believe that the effect of Snowden’s actions will probably be a modest increase in the short-term risk, a modest decrease in the long-term risk, and a modest increase in the privacy of the American people.

      And it should be noted that I believe this with the benefit of hindsight, having seen a fair chunk of what was in the leaked material and of what other people have had to say about that material. There is no way that Snowden alone could have vetted that incredible volume of material before firehosing it to the foreign press. Which puts him squarely in the “reckless idiot” category even if he wasn’t a paid FSB asset at the time (and he surely is now).

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      Jeffrey is certainly a good writer; I took issue with the (lack of) logic (or fact) supporting his assertion that there is something about Snowden’s story that is so curious as to constitute evidence in itself that Snowden is lying.

      I do not think it is clear that the Snowden revelations have caused a significant decrease in safety, or any at all. If you assume that incompetent, undercommitted actual or potential terrorists were the only ones who didn’t know that their electronic communications and computers were likely subject to surveillance, then the only impact might be an increase in deterrence at low levels of involvement, such as surfing jihadi sites and looking for explosive supplies on Amazon.

      Reasonable people can reasonably disagree about where the right balance lies between privacy and safety, or whether there is really a tradeoff at all. Viewing intelligence as a mechanism to defend the country is a reasonable but limited view. That is certainly not the only thing it is or could turn out to be.

  19. Geoff Forden (History)

    Josh Rovner has pointed out that most of what Snowden has released has nothing to do with mass surveillance but rather with perfectly legal activity outside of the US. He may well have become upset about some NSA activities but he set out to do as much damage to the US as possible. It is also clear that he is willing to trade that knowledge, which has nothing to do with the US constitution, for an improved lifestyle. On several occasions, he has offered to shared information about NSA activities in foreign countries if only they give him sanctuary.

    It also seems quite likely to me that he is being manipulated by others (ie Russia) now that he is within their power and would, perhaps, rather not do the things he does; provided he even recognizes the implications of what he is doing. Im thinking of his recent appearance on Putin’s TV show and his incredibly naive assertion that he was “challenging” Putin. But he did this to himself and bears the entire responsibility for his actions. To me, it is irrelevant whether or not he had foreign help during his espionage.

    The important point is, like Manning, he released so much information that he cannot have considered their impact on national security or constitutional rights. This is where he differs from true heroes like Ellsberg, who knew exactly–and indeed wrote–much of what he released.

  20. Jeffrey B (History)

    I have never believed that Snowden’s motives were high-minded, since his behavior does not support such an interpretation. (The same, alas, is true of the behavior of Assange, another self-proclaimed “anti-authoritarian” who is willingly collaborating with countries that are far more thuggish and authoritarian, and vastly less transparent, than the US.) In fact, Snowden’s behavior is probably treasonous when judged according to any rational standard given his penchant for collaborating with authoritarian regimes that are actively hostile to his own country. Having said that, it remains to be seen whether evidence emerges demonstrating that he was in fact recruited by Russian intelligence. As you point out, however, the tales spun by Snowden himself are far from credible. It is therefore a sad commentary on the wishful thinking or outright hypocrisy of the many so-called “civil libertarians” who have uncritically accepted these tales.

  21. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Are there any other times you know of when an intelligence agency has gained information by releasing it to the public domain? Or nearly doing so? I’d say the Russians are taking full advantage of the situation.

    If Snowded had done as you suggested then we would not know the extent to which the post 9/11 laws allow our actions, comings, going, and communications to be monitored. We’d have hints, but not hard evidence spelling it all out. Doing it your way would only tell us it’s “really bad folks.” and the fact that Snowden would be in a even darker hole than Bradly Manning was put in would be our best and only indication of how bad it was. Now we have the documents ourselves.

    As to his actions in the past few weeks. I’d ask anyone here to consider how brave you’d be when you have every Western intelligence agency running after you at best with an arrest warrant, probably something worse. Keeping in mind that the US assassinates its own citizens after secret ‘trials’ conducted entirely within the executive branch, if you wanted to keep your head you’d need someone who could not only keep the Western intelligence community at bay, but also keep secure skies. Put yourself in those shoes.

    I’m sorry Mr Lewis you’re asking Mr Snowden to be pure in a very corrupt world. And you’re asking him face a judicial system that’s radically changed in the past 12 years. I think if he did half the things you challenge him to do, he’d be dead.

    • j_kies (History)

      I think the point is that Mr Snowden isn’t pure in any sense of the word. Regardless of my opinions as to the inherent ineffective nature of cyber spying, when outside of the US, its legal/legit (just not useful). Snowden was uncaring at best as to the harm his releases on the foreign intelligence effort would create.

      Geoff captures the sense of many of us, if he had restricted his releases to the domestic programs/abuses, then whistleblower status was plausible.