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July 6, 2013

Snowden is neither hero nor traitor

By Justin Vernold
The Daily Star

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The case of National Security Agency contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden has been accurately described as a sort of political Rorschach test. Describe him to multiple people, and some will see a national hero and willing martyr for the right to privacy. Others would say he’s a traitor.
 
In my line of work, one’s instinct is to always come to the defense of those who leak classified information. Journalists generally believe that more information is always better — at least in the hands of fellow journalists, who presumably have sound enough judgment to handle sensitive information tactfully. A leak of classified information, after all, isn’t an honorable act in and of itself, and could come from a disgruntled employee or would-be saboteur with an ax to grind.
 
Snowden’s story is similar to that of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst facing a court-martial after leaking classified information to WikiLeaks in 2010.
 
On one hand, Manning exposed the harsh and often-ignored truth about the ugliness of warfare. The July 2007 Baghdad air strike that mistakenly killed two Reuters journalists and the May 2009 Afghanistan air strike that left some 100 civilians dead were both exposed by Manning, and both merited the public’s attention, regardless of what the Pentagon may think.
 
But it’s hard to defend the sheer volume of secret data Manning leaked indiscriminately, including more than 250,000 diplomatic cables and 400,000 army war reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these were otherwise mundane documents that described no wrongdoing — but became a gold mine of military intelligence for al-Qaida and foreign states that view the U.S. with hostility or suspicion.
 
As someone with a brother who served in Iraq, I can’t help but wonder about the consequences of Manning leaking after-action reports, intelligence sources and diplomatic maneuvering. Manning’s leaks were mostly a so-called data dump, rather than actual whistle-blowing, because there’s no way he had enough time to read his entire trove of documents before passing them along.
 
Instead, Manning placed his trust in WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. Unfortunately, Assange isn’t a journalist; he’s a computer hacker motivated a rigid, borderline-fanatical ideology about freedom of information. David Leigh of the Guardian newspaper, in a PBS interview, recalled a pre-publication meeting with Assange in which Leigh urged Assange to redact the names of U.S. intelligence sources who could face retribution.
 
“We said, ‘Julian, we’ve got to do something about these redactions. We really have got to,’” Leigh said. “And he said, ‘These people were collaborators, informants. They deserve to die.’ And a silence fell around the table.”
 
That said, the personalities of Assange, Manning and Snowden are largely beside the point. Snowden, in particular, has been a favorite subject for those seeking to portray him as an attention-seeking narcissist and hypocrite, who in 2009 said leakers of classified data should be “shot in the b--ls.”
 
Such stories are reminiscent of the personal attacks against former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg after his 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times.
 
Then-President Richard Nixon’s thugs even went so far as to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find dirt for their anti-Ellsberg smear campaign. Nixon’s goal was to turn attention away from the veracity of Ellsberg’s information and frame the issue instead as a clash of personalities.
 
Unfortunately, many are similarly treating the Snowden story like a soap opera; the brash rebel Snowden versus The Establishment, with Vladimir Putin and Glenn Greenwald cast in supporting roles — with the actual facts of the story treated like the end credits.
 
The issue isn’t Snowden or his personality — it’s whether the NSA actions exposed by his leaks violate the Fourth Amendment. But let’s drop that most absurd and idiotic of cop-outs: that privacy is irrelevant in the age of Google and Facebook. Governments, unlike corporations, can imprison people.
 
But with the NSA surveillance being conducted under the auspices of Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, it’s debatable whether Snowden has a winning argument. The surveillance isn’t necessarily unconstitutional, nor is it wholly unpopular; a Pew-Washington Post survey in June found that 56 percent of Americans support it.
 
But does Snowden deserve the gallows, as suggested by Donald Trump? Snowden appears to have acted out of sincere concern for his country, like Ellsberg — as opposed to complete scoundrels like ex-CIA moles Robert Hanssen and Jonathan Pollard— so the death penalty, to me, seems excessive.
 
The irony is that Snowden, who in 2009 condemned WikiLeaks for exposing a covert program targeting Iran’s nuclear research, is now turning to Assange for help. It’s also hard to reconcile Snowden’s claim that he doesn’t “want to live in a society that does these sort of things” with his flight to China and later Russia — two countries with massive domestic spying programs used routinely to silence dissenters.
 
But perhaps it isn’t all that ironic that Assange and Snowden would become allies. Both appear to be rigid, unyielding ideologues who believe all information should be public, period, and all searches are unreasonable, period. Both seem to think that those who disagree with them are not only wrong, but deserve to die. And neither man is the type of person I’d trust with information that could put others in harm’s way.
 
JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor for The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com.