It was an immediate online beatification. On Twitter and in the insta-columns produced immediately after he disclosed his identity, Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton employee who acknowledged leaking top-secret NSA documents to journalists from The Washington Post and Guardian newspapers, was declared an “American patriot.” He was favorably compared to WikiLeaker Bradley Manning and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, while The Guardian proclaimed that Snowden “will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers.” There were scattered moments of skepticism, but they were vastly outweighed by drippy encomiums.
Dare I suggest that a small dollop of skepticism is required here? There is an instinct, indulged by journalists and activists, to reflexively anoint the leaker—or the whistleblower, depending on your point of view—saintly status. And the braying mobs of Snowden supporters, who nicely overlap with the passionate Julian Assange fans and Ron Paul devotees (Snowden himself donated $500 to Paul’s campaign in 2012), will doubtless dismiss any incertitude as the grumblings of Obama-administration flunkies or Bush nostalgics.
Well, no. Even a generous reading of the programs exposed by Snowden should deeply trouble those of us who are skeptical of the ever-growing American security state. And even if the administration’s explanations and justifications of the NSA’s snooping programs are to be trusted—the program foiled terror attacks, was focused only on foreign nationals, and no calls were listened to, etc.—it nevertheless raises ethical and moral issues that demand further public debate, as Snowden said an interview with The Guardian.
But even after Snowden’s disclosures, do we even understand what, exactly, the NSA is engaged in? As journalist J.M. Berger rightly points out, “the information we lack vastly outweighs the information we have. We should be cautious in interpreting data summaries we don’t fully understand.” And when we do understand that information, as the story thickens and clarifies, it’s possible that the worst-case readings by journalists and independent analysts were too cautious. But even in the past few days, some aspects of the program originally reported as terrifying and incontrovertible fact have changed.
For instance, the Post claimed that the NSA was “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies” with the express consent of the companies involved. The Guardian made similar claims. But as one intelligence source told CNET, the program is “not as described in the histrionics in the Washington Post or the Guardian. None of it’s true. It’s a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do.” The Post updated its story, no longer claiming that major tech companies such as Google and Facebook provided the NSA with direct access to their servers. As tech journalist Ed Bott wrote, “Almost no one who reacted to the story initially did so with any skepticism about the Post’s sources or its conclusions.”
Indeed, ZDNet, along with Gizmodo, Forbes, The Week, TechCrunch, and many others, reported last week that the hacker collective Anonymous also was getting in on the NSA action, having “leaked” a series of classified documents. But the tedious material “released” by Anonymous was publicly available white papers and PowerPoint presentations, available to anyone who cared enough to spend their evenings trawling government websites. Last month, something similar happened when a number of media organizations fell for a WikiLeaks’ “leak” of documents long available of the National Archives website.
And we should recall too the meteoric rise and unthinking deification of Assange, the data liberationist who now lives an angry and ascetic life in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Many of his previous supporters have long since abandoned him. (Assange advised on Twitter that the leaker “needs to get to Ecuador,” a country with a dubious record of guaranteeing free speech and opposition to the government.)
Snowden’s odd escape to Hong Kong also rankles, as does his confident declaration that the island is a beacon of press and Internet freedom. (Freedom House judges its press only “partly free.”) As is clear from his interview with The Guardian, Snowden is a deeply intelligent guy but also one who indulges in the conspiratorial. The CIA, he says, could “render” (i.e., kidnap) him at any time, which is highly unlikely but not symptomatic of the paranoid. But in the same breath, he warns that United States government could “pay off the Triads,” or any of their “agents or assets,” to do him harm. He also claims that “sitting at my desk, [I] certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal e-mail.” Possibly, and it’s a claim that should be vigorously investigated, but was a relatively low-level, 29-year-old NSA subcontractor authorized to wiretap anyone in the United States? Let us, at least, hope this isn’t true.
The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, the indefatigable writer who broke the NSA story, has hinted that more documents are to come, and it’s possible that further evidence could clarify the story and add much-needed detail to the growing outrage. But until we know more, let’s take a few breaths and resist the insta-consecration of Edward Snowden.