Nothing about the Snowden Affair smells quite right. It is one thing to break the law to reveal the existence of a secret NSA surveillance program. But there was little secret about this program, since it is plainly within the language of the Protect America Act and the FISA amendments of 2008, and freely -- with certain restrictions -- available to Congressional leadership and the Intelligence committees. Breaking the law to present evidence of a government surveillance program, enacted under laws passed by Congress, can pass the righteous test if there is evidence that it is being secretly abused by the government in ways never contemplated by Congress. That debate, according the President Obama, will occur, and briefings and hearings are already underway in Congress. But even here, the jury is still out as Congress scrambles to both hold the NSA accountable and cover its own possible culpability-by-negligence.
However, there is a fine distinction between evidence of a secret spy program on Americans, and evidence of a secret program spying on foreign individuals with potential ill-will towards Americans. It is crossing a thin, albeit bright line, to reveal intricate details of any government surveillance program, including potentially the actual software coding and programming. And it is counter-intuitive to the use of civil disobedience to protect American's civil rights, when the actions at issue include revealing the foreign targets of a government surveillance program aimed at anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism. And that is the slippery slope that Edward Snowden stands on today.
There is a sharp contrast between a conscientous whistleblower and the young man in the news this past week. Daniel Ellsberg faced the consequences and underwent trial. Bradley Manning, whose court-martial is underway, never made any attempt to flee and knows that the number of years he will spend inside a military prison may far outnumber the days he will live free. The civil rights heroes of the '50s and '60s stood their ground and paid dearly, sometimes the ultimate price, for standing against Jim Crow laws.
Instead of coming forward flanked by a phalanx of civil liberties lawyers who might have entered a lottery to defend him, Snowden ran. And he ran to a place whose history is entwined in piracy, smuggling, and the Cold War, Hong Kong. A place I know well because I lived there in my youth. Hong Kong is not merely a doorstep away from China -- 1997 irrevocably changed that -- but a giant stride inside of China. Which a person as obviously gifted with grey matter as Snowden knows is a country that poses the greatest intelligence and potential military threat to the United States. Perhaps I have read too many le Carre novels, but there may be more tradecraft in Snowden's actions than bravery.
I have read and listened to all of Snowden's interviews to parse what he is saying. In one interview to the Guardian, he gave details of a CIA operation in Geneva that anyone with a little access to the famed record-keeping of the Swiss could use to deduce the identity of the turned asset. Now the Swiss government is demanding answers and, no doubt, conducting their own investigation using the same records.
In another interview, he stated -- perhaps boasted -- that with a few changes to the code, he could track the president of the United States. For intelligence agencies around the world, the question they are all asking is, "does he actually know the code?" And if so, what price are they willing to pay to get their hands on it? He also used the phrase the "architecture of oppression." Many people have focused on the use of "oppression" as overreaching hyperbole. But the first word, architecture, is what grabbed my interest. In geek-speak, architecture is not a Gaudi or Frank Gehry. It is a defined description of exactly how a program works to achieve its objectives. It is the code, and knowing the code means you can figure out how to break it. If that is what he meant, and that is what he knows, then that is not a good thing for our nation's security if it fell into the wrong hands.
And, just recently, he decided to reveal/accuse/leak that the NSA had been targeting Hong Kong and China for years for dedicated hacking. According to the South China Morning Post, he provided documents to back up his claim, which included naming universities and other details of a classified NSA operation.
I do not believe the initial comments were mere slips of the tongue, the casual boastings of a fame-hypnotized millenial. And the revelations in the South China Morning Post dispel all disbelief that he was only targeting documents revealing a spying network on Americans. He spent some time, probably more than the three weeks he has alluded to, carefully targeting and sifting and sequestering information. And unlike Bradley Manning, who knew only a portion of what he passed off to Wikileaks, Snowden apparently targeted what he was downloading, including gaining access to encrypted information that has initially puzzled NSA officials who wonder how he got his hands on information from a NSA location in Hawaii. Because, possibly, this started when he still worked in Maryland, for another NSA contractor, Dell, which is located in and around the NSA super-secret headquarters - Fort Meade, Maryland. Which means, again, theoretically, that this started much, much before and begins to cast some doubt on the end game that Snowden has in mind.
It is the end game, ultimately, that makes little sense in the conscientous leaker context. For a person who didn't want attention, he sat down for a week of video interviews with the Guardian and one of his initial contacts was with a noted documentary maker and journalist, Laura Poitras. Why it is not difficult to understand how a person like Snowden would reach out to Poitras, it is altogether a different story why he would arrange a worldwide coming out party of his leaker status.
Other facts puzzle. Why lie about your salary -- he claimed it was $200,000, but Booz Allen said it was only $120,000 -- when it was easily fact-checked. Why abandon a girlfriend of 4 years, who had moved 5,000 miles to be with him in Hawaii, without making any arrangements for her safety? And in the biggest contradiction, after he vacated the posh Hongkong hotel he was holed up in for three weeks, ordering room service (and as a former HK denizen I can tell you that this cost him a bundle) to protect his safety and privacy, he surfaces to give exclusive interviews to a Hong Kong paper to publicly condemn his home country and accuse it of "bullying" the Hongkong government.
His rationale for going public was to protect his coworkers from suspicion and to protect his family. But it can also be easily read as setting the terms for his information -- money, protection -- by revealing what he has to offer in return. Only the latter scenario requires him to leave his country for the freewheeling auction house known as Hong Kong. And auction that may include, ironically, the United States among his bidders.
Daniel Ellsberg believed in the United States but not its war, stood trial, and won. Bradley Manning took accountability for his actions and never wavered. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Birmingham jail. Muhammad Ali lost his boxing title refusing induction into the Army but was vindicated by the Supreme Court. There are countless heroes, past and present, who willingly risked their freedom in our judicial system because they believe in our country and our system.
Edward Snowden, for all his initial declamations, has no such faith in our country. He prefers the judicial system of Hong Kong to a jury of his peers. He believes he is safe in a country which has targeted for acquisition our deepest, darkest defense secrets and technology, while abandoned his girlfriend and family to a nation whose government he does not trust. He has turned over secret documents to a foreign paper in the country of our greatest global rival.
He claims he is "neither hero nor traitor. I'm an American." But to be an American is to stand firm in your beliefs. It is to understand that we are not perfect, but we believe in the possibility of a more perfect union. We fight for our beliefs. Sometimes, our side wins. Sometimes, our side loses. The cycle of politics continues, governments change, but our nation endures. As a Civil Rights Commissioner, the notion of civil disobedience in furtherance of a greater good is instilled in my DNA. Free speech, a free press, are all fundamental cornerstones of our democracy. Evidence of a massive government domestic surveillance program, unchecked and unguarded, chills the notion of privacy to the very bone. If this is true then Edward Snowden, former NSA contract employee, may indeed be a hero, and acting in the best sense what it means to be an American.
Snowden, at present however, is not acting like an American. He is, as Jeffrey Toobin artfully pointed out, behaving like a "grandiose narcissist" who has a view of America that is either naive, misguided, or deliberately misleading. He may go on trial, defending his decisions and his political beliefs. Or as his latest actions indicate, he may live in perpetual and perhaps comfortable exile, known for being, rightly or wrongly, a coward, or traitor, or both.