Snowden reconsidered

One of the most stimulating and informative features of online publishing is the feedback I occasionally get from readers. That was precisely the case with regard to my review article on Edward Snowden’s book of memoirs Permanent Record as re-published on   Specifically, one reader sent in the link to an unedited hour-long interview with Snowden taken by MSNBC just after the book came out.

I subsequently watched that interview and have discussed it with others. Both I and the ‘others’ agreed that Snowden came across as eminently unlikable. He was arrogant. His nervous laughter after hearing most questions suggested contempt for his interlocutor, and likely for the audience as well. One ‘other’ with psychologist’s training found him to be narcissistic.

Of course, as I reminded the ‘others,’ very few people who achieve global prominence with such remarkable speed as Snowden did, very few people who are recognized by those in the profession as being “a genius among geniuses,’ are likable. That does not come with the territory.  You look instead at their impact on our lives, which, for Snowden, has been massive and very positive, having raised the debate on mass surveillance and data privacy from zero to its present high place in public consciousness, having influenced lawmakers, device manufacturers, internet service providers in the USA, in Europe to introduce measures protecting the public.

However, there were elements of a different kind in the MSNBC interview which I found deeply troubling and which compel me to revise downward my estimation of Snowden as a fellow traveler in politics by his “dissident” status, and also to revise sharply downward my estimation of his growth from monomaniacal techie-nerd to reflective humanist.

By his own words, Snowden discounts the possibility that he will be pardoned any time soon by the powers that be in Washington. And yet he apparently remains in contact with U.S. intelligence services discussing aspects of what he did and why. And he says he would come back ‘home’ in a moment if invited to take up work to protect the U.S. presidential elections of 2020 from foreign hackers and disseminators of fake news.  He also continues to reach out to governments across Europe and elsewhere in the hope of receiving political asylum and so to leave Russia, which he considers to be a compromising place to live, detrimental to his image in his homeland, whereas Sweden, France or Germany would look good to his sympathizers in the United States. He does not conceal his dislike for Putin’s ‘authoritarian’ regime and poor record on human rights.

This is all quite a load of baggage that his book of memoirs did not cover at all.

First, it is quite astonishing that he refuses to see the obvious: that Russia was and remains the only country on earth with the determination to resist American blackmail and pressures for his extradition, not to mention one of the very few countries with internal security sufficiently strong to protect Snowden from kidnappers or assassins.

In saying that he would gladly return to work for U.S. intel, Snowden shows that what troubled him was only how these services destroyed the open and free internet with its anonymity that he reveled in during the 1990s.  He is willfully ignorant, turns a blind eye to the possibility that the FBI, the domestic buddies of the CIA, and the overarching NSA might be practicing malfeasance, might be violating the U.S. Constitution and depriving the American public of their liberties in other dimensions, outside his purview as technologist. However, that is patently the case.

You have only to go back to the 2016 presidential elections to see that the intelligence agencies were not merely watching closely the ominous rise of Donald Trump, his advocacy of an outstretched hand of friendship to Russia, his disparagement of NATO and the traditional U.S. allies, but were part and party to the Clinton campaign’s efforts to paint Trump at best as subject to blackmail by the Russians due to his alleged sexual escapades in Moscow, and at worst as the willing dupe of Putin in active collusion with the Russians.  The notorious “Steele Report,” potentially damaging as it was, represented just the tip of the iceberg. It was circulated and promoted in Washington, to the press with the help of the intelligence services.

In the days following his election, straight through to the final delivery of the Mueller findings in the late spring of 2019 telling us that charges against Trump were non-actionable, ex-directors of the intel services were leakers to the press, commentators on U.S. television and otherwise directly involved in the Democratic Party led efforts to discredit, to handcuff the president and prevent implementation of his avowed plans to change the direction of foreign policy.  No one in intel has paid any price whatsoever for this foul play, for this intervention in political processes and undermining the proper functioning of democracy. To a man, they remain untouchable.

And now that Mueller failed to deliver a knock-out blow against Trump, we are in the midst of what the President has called a slow-motion coup d’état over his phone call to Ukrainian President Zelensky urging an investigation into the prima facie corruption of Joe Biden and his son in their Ukrainian dealings of 2014 and later. Who are the “whistle blowers” said to be?  Yes, they are both coming from the U.S. intelligence services. I rest my case there.

The Kremlin for the most part holds to itself its views on the inner workings of American politics.  As President Putin has said repeatedly, the Russian government is ready to work together with whomever the American electorate puts in office. However, there are moments when their concern over who is in charge in Washington comes to the surface:  the elected President or the Deep State in the person of what Russians call the siloviki, meaning the ‘power ministries.’

One such moment occurred back in September 2016, when Ashton Carter’s Pentagon bombed the Syrian military outpost of Dair ez-Zor, thereby sabotaging the truce agreed between Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, which had been achieved with Obama’s approval. And now on 6 October 2019, the question of who is in charge has again been raised publicly by the Kremlin.

We read the following extraordinary comments in a news release of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemning the FBI interrogation of a Russian parliamentarian upon her arrival in the USA. The Duma member was scheduled to attend a colloquium on improving bilateral relations organized by Fort Ross in California for which the other members of the Russian delegation had been denied U.S. visas:

“either the American authorities, contrary to their statements, do not feel the desire to normalize the dialogue, or are not able to control the actions of their own Intelligence services” [emphasis mine]

These are issues that Edward Snowden shuts out of his thoughts.

In my book review, I spoke of Edward Snowden as an outstanding representative of the engineer’s turn of mind, inquisitive and stopping at nothing to learn how things work.  I meant that to be a compliment.  However, the same turn of mind easily has a damning drawback: contempt for ordinary politicians and statesmen, and the hubristic certainty that technocrats, and in particular technologists, could do a much better job of governance in the interests of all.  In his memoirs, Snowden mentions in passing that his parents both had no regard for politicians; in that one respect the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

For all of the above reasons, I think Edward Snowden still has a long way to go in his self-education and maturation.  But he is still remarkably young and we may hope his intelligence and curiosity will burn through his indifference to everything but what is on his screen.

©Gilbert Doctorow 2019