No Time for Proof

Without Waiting for Proof, Edward Snowden Foes Begin Spreading Smears

Before jumping to conclusions about Snowden’s motives and masters, let’s look at the governments history of mistreating whistleblowers, writes Kirsten Powers.

It’s the question on everyone’s lips: "Why is Edward Snowden in China?”

The implication is that spookiness is the only plausible explanation for why the NSA whistleblower would have absconded to Hong Kong. “Why flee the country?” is the accusation du jour. “I'm deeply suspicious obviously because he went to China,” said the man-most-likely-to-accuse-you-of-being-a-spy, Dick Cheney.

CBS’s Bob Schieffer accused Snowed of cowardice, taunting: “I don’t remember Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks running off to China.”

Let me suggest an alternative explanation: Bradley Manning.

The trial of the man who handed over classified information to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is a cautionary tale for all wannabe whistleblowers. While being held for nearly three years before his trial finally began, Manning—who had committed no acts of violence—was kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, checked every five minutes, and stripped naked at night. More than 250 U.S. legal scholars signed a letter of protest, arguing that his "degrading and inhumane conditions" were illegal and unconstitutional. Human rights groups protested.

“There can be no conceivable justification for requiring a soldier to surrender all his clothing, remain naked in his cell for seven hours, and then stand at attention the subsequent morning,” Manning’s lawyer complained. “This treatment is even more degrading considering that Pfc. Manning is being monitored—both by direct observation and by video—at all times.” When President Obama was asked about Manning, he said that the "procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards." A military judge disagreed, later ruling that Manning was subjected to excessively harsh treatment in military detention. But the damage was already done.

Here’s another possible answer to the accusation-cum-query: Thomas Drake.

Drake is another NSA whistleblower, who did exactly what the insiders are claiming Snowden should have done. He followed the rules. He went through the “proper channels.” He paid dearly for it. Wrote Drake in The Guardian, “I understand why Snowden has taken his course of action, because he’s been following this for years: he’s seen what’s happened to other whistleblowers like me.” Drake shared everything he knew with Congress only to see it go nowhere. He says that after he shared nonclassified info with a reporter, the FBI raided his house, he was threatened with jail for the rest of his life and he was under government surveillance. Writes Drake: “Snowden can expect the worst; he knows that. He went preemptively overseas because that at least delays the prying hand of the U.S. government.”

In a live Q-and-A on the Guardian website Monday, Snowden made clear that he does not believe justice exists for whistleblowers in the U.S. When asked why he fled the country, he said: “The US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason and that the disclosure of secret, criminal, and even unconstitutional acts is an unforgivable crime. That's not justice, and it would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it.”

My final answer to the question: Daniel Ellsberg.

After Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, the Nixon administration orchestrated a break in of his psychiatrist’s office to gain of information about his mental state so they could discredit him. Interestingly, in a recent interview, Ellsberg said he understood why Snowden fled the country: “He would not be out on bond as I was 40 years ago. I was able to speak very freely in this country out on bond during my trial. And to speak not so much about my case as to the war, and to put my message out about the nature of the war and why it should be ended.”

Sadly, the first impulse of the government and their defenders seems to have remained consistent over time: don’t address the critical information that has been leaked. Instead, dig up dirt and destroy the whistleblower’s credibility and if possible, life.

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None of this is to say that we know Snowden hasn’t been working for China from the beginning. It would be odd, considering double agents don’t usually out themselves, and, as he mentions in his Guardian live chat, he could have taken a direct flight to Beijing. But based on the little information we have, the unproven accusation that he is a spy is egregious. These are not the kinds of things you say about someone without some actual proof—and leaving America is not proof. Considering the U.S. government’s history of trashing whistleblowers, we should treat all accusations about Snowden’s motives or purported masters with skepticism until real evidence is presented.

It’s safe to say Snowden isn’t helping his case. While it may not be spying, leaking information to journalists about U.S. activity against China and Russia is reprehensible. Yes, much of what he leaked was already widely suspected, and some even reported in the media. But Snowden gave two of the worst governments in the world ammunition to beat up on the U.S. Regardless of his legitimate beef with the American national security state, there is simply no moral equivalency between the U.S. government and the governments of Russia and China. It would be interesting to know if Snowden believes there is.

When asked today in a live Q&A at the Guardian website if he was or would be giving secrets to the Chinese in exchange for asylum, he initially mocked the question. When pressed, he said “no.” For everyone’s sake, let’s hope that’s true.