It seems appropriate, following on the heels of discussing the treasonous behavior of U.S. citizens and business entities controlling more than a dozen U.S. radio stations that are broadcasting Chinese government propaganda to much of the U.S. populace, to discuss former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Snowden, despite having little formal education beyond a a few college courses at a local community college and some vocational training in computer networks, became recognized in the span of only a few years as a savant in the subject of computer network security in the U.S. intelligence community. This enabled him to ingratiate himself to the U.S. government to such an extent that he came to possess almost unlimited access to any classified materials stored on the NSA and CIA’s information systems. And he made the most of that access, illegally recording copies of hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of classified files.
In 2013 Snowden released some of these files to journalists working for the British newspaper The Guardian. The documents in question revealed the existence of a substantial effort by the U.S. government to collect, using sophisticated data mining programs and back doors into much of the Internet’s major vendors and systems, as much information as practical on every person using the Internet, whether it was by U.S. citizens or foreigners. Some or all of the same classified files given to The Guardian were subsequently distributed to other domestic and foreign media outlets. The apparent scope of the surveillance (which included hundreds of major foreign politicians) was so extensive that a significant backlash erupted against the United States by both allies and hostile interests alike. The effect was not just limited to acute national embarrassment. In addition to the diplomatic damage done to the U.S. and some of its closest allies, hundreds of millions (and perhaps billions) of dollars of economic losses were incurred by the U.S. high technology industry subsequent to the revelations of their complicity in U.S government surveillance.
The bulk collection surveillance was eventually found to be in violation of U.S. law on the matter, primarily the provisions of the Patriot Act. This determination was only arrived at after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Director of National Intelligence (retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper) and two subsequent years of litigation, at which point the relevant provisions of the Patriot Act expired. The succeeding law, the USA Freedom Act, reinstated these expired provisions, but with certain strictures against the abuses revealed by Snowden.
Snowden fled the U.S. just before his leaks were made public by the media. Subsequent analysis appears to show that Russia was his intended destination, but that he was unable to fly there directly given his status as an NSA contractor. Instead he gained permission to fly to Hong Kong for medical reasons, and once there met with Russian diplomats. Securing permission to travel on to Russia, he left Hong Kong within three weeks of the public release of his stolen files. Before Snowden departed Hong Kong, the U.S. government requested Snowden be extradited. But Chinese officials, displaying little appetite (or seeing little gain) in intervening in the U.S. surveillance debate, let Snowden go.
Snowden has subsequently claimed his intent all along was to travel to the first Latin American country that would grant him asylum, and that the first country to do so was Ecuador, and the only available route from Hong Kong to Ecuador was through Moscow and Havana. Once the U.S. revoked his passport (which occurred while he was in Hong Kong), he was trapped in Russia. This explanation, although straining logic and even basic common sense, has nevertheless served to act as a fig leaf for activists and journalists that support Snowden’s decisions as acts conducted in the public interest and continue to provide a conduit for further releases of classified U.S. government documents.
Snowden has further claimed that he was forced to flee the country because of his status as contractor (instead of a normal U.S.government employee), for which provisions in the U.S. law for whisteblowers have been significantly weakened. He would have been captured, jailed, and muzzled, all in the interests of national security. Thus the public interest in the illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens and unscrupulous surveillance of foreign nationals would never have been served.
It is undoubtedly true that he would have been jailed and his access to the media curtailed, although it seems clear that the initial leak of documents (unhindered at that time by the unsuspecting U.S. government) would have been sufficient to serve the public interest in the fashion Snowden had intended. So it is unlikely that the public interest argument has any valid intersection with Snowden’s status as a fugitive. Rather it is more likely that fleeing the U.S. to a country that would take no little pleasure in poking the U.S. occasionally in the eye would allow Snowden to satisfy a desire to stay at the center of attention. Snowden was clearly not interested in assuming the role of Deep Throat (later revealed to be Associate FBI Director Mark Fell) during Watergate, malevolently urging the Washington Post‘s Woodward and Bernstein from the shadows to “follow the money”. No, Snowden envisioned his role as one of mediator and cause célèbre, pulling the strings in the surveillance narrative. And to a large extent Snowden has succeeded in this aim.
Is Snowden a traitor? There is little doubt of that. He has provided aid and comfort to the United States’ enemies and adversaries. The fact that he has purportedly done so in the public interest does nothing to mitigate his status as a traitor. There is also likely little doubt, if brought to the U.S. for prosecution, that he will be convicted of several felonies related to espionage and misappropriation of classified documents. The eventual sentence for such a conviction could conceivably be mitigated by a court who felt it was appropriate to weigh the public’s interest in the matters brought to light by Snowden. Unfortunately in Snowden’s calculus, the power of the U.S. government to deprive him of his rights, such as they were, trumped any possible success in court.
Whistleblowers in the U.S. have received short shrift. The U.S. government, in the person of unscrupulous and self-serving bureaucrats and law enforcement officials, has often persecuted and ruined whistleblowers. The abuses have often angered the U.S. public, although Congress has shown little ability to agree on wide scale solution to the problem. But is Snowden a whistleblower, a traitor, or both? If he is a whistleblower, does that justify all of his excesses and the collateral damage caused by his file disclosures?
In the United States, the government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. There is no political separation of the U.S. people and the government. It is common for citizens of other countries to make statements like “we have nothing against the U.S. people–just its government”. And while it is true that U.S. presidential administrations have embarrassed the U.S. people upon occasion, with regard to how U.S. citizens view the actions of their citizen peers, there is no excuse for treason in order to right a public wrong. It makes little sense to burn a house down if the alarm system doesn’t work.
That is why, in the end analysis, traitors cannot be whistleblowers.