Edward Snowden, Defender of Democracy or Accessory to Autocracy?

The former NSA contractor may be a hero to some for unveiling U.S. government surveillance, but reports that his stolen documents have been breached by Russia and China raise serious questions about the repercussions of his actions.

Anshel Pfeffer
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Protesters supporting ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden hold a photo of him during a demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, June 13, 2013. Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer

One of the ironic moments in “Citizenfour,” the documentary lionizing former National Security Agency (NSA) system administrator and current Moscow resident Edward Snowden, takes place when Snowden prepares to leave his hotel hideaway in Hong Kong. Before departing, he grabs an umbrella to evade detection. Fourteen months after Snowden fled the United States – exactly when “Citizenfour” premiered – umbrellas would become the symbol of pro-democracy protests against the rule of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong.

Most of “Citizenfour” (which will be screened Monday evening on Israel’s Channel 1) takes place in Hong Kong, and the film features a scene of Snowden in his new home in the Russian capital – but there is no reference in the documentary to Snowden’s current circumstances, or to the arrangements made with China’s Communist dictatorship and Russia’s authoritarian regime to ensure his limited freedom and protection from American justice.

Snowden and his chief supporters in the West, journalist-activist Glenn Greenwald, his co-star in “Citizenfour,” and its filmmaker Laura Poitras, have refused to discuss these arrangements since they facilitated his defection two years ago. For them, the focus on Snowden’s actions remains limited to the light shed by the massive trove of documents he stole on the nefarious activities of the NSA – the main electronic surveillance agency in the U.S. – and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters.

Journalists who sought to view the Snowden leaks in a wider context, including the intelligence war the West is waging against terror organizations, and the increasingly aggressive electronic surveillance and hacking on the part of Russia and China, are treated as government lackeys. Greenwald, in particular, has used his new website, The Intercept, to attack anyone who dares to question whether Snowden’s Russian hosts wouldn’t carry out the elementary intelligence exercise of trying to access the top-secret documents he downloaded and brought with him.

It became more difficult to avoid that debate yesterday, as the main headline in the Sunday Times in London saw British intelligence sources confirm that the Russians and Chinese successfully breached the encryption on the Snowden documents. As a result, the report said, MI6, Britain’s spy agency, had to move agents and other assets out of harm’s way.

In other words, have Snowden’s actions benefited Western societies by increasing awareness of government agencies’ snooping? Or have they created untold damage by hampering those agencies’ battle against rivals who pay little, if any, heed to public opinion, courts and civil rights?  

Greenwald, as usual, was quick to post an angry rebuttal on The Intercept. He accused the Sunday Times correspondents, quite rightly, of basing their report on anonymous sources with an obvious interest in smearing Snowden and blaming him for wreaking havoc. Greenwald pointed to contradictions in their information; he especially contested their assertion that Snowden arrived in Moscow with the documents still in his possession. The Snowden-Greenwald camp has long claimed that he handed these documents over to journalists he trusted – and even if he wanted to, he could no longer pass them on to another spy agency.

The British weekly’s account is indeed far from conclusive. But Greenwald’s detailed case for the defense continues to evade the central questions hovering over Snowden’s head. If his sole intention truly was to inform American citizens of the way their government intrudes on their private communications, why did he spend months collecting a massive collection of classified documents (as many as 1.7 million according to some sources), often using passwords purloined from his colleagues? Wouldn’t it have been enough to abscond with just the relevant ones? And when he began the big reveal, or more accurately, when journalists who received the documents began publishing them, why did the focus move away from solely privacy issues to practically any international spy program that titillated the media? (Take, for example, the eavesdropping of national leaders’ personal phones, including that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.)

Why didn’t Snowden stick to his raison d’etre? Even if we believe that the documents were no longer with him when he arrived in Moscow, why do the “Snowdenistas” assume the documents wouldn’t be much more vulnerable and accessible to spy agencies hostile to the U.S. once they left NSA computers and started circulating among journalists?

Greenwald accuses Snowden’s critics of not basing their allegations on facts, but fails to present his own facts to prop up his defense; he basically demands that we take Snowden and him at their word. Books published on the case and interviews Snowden has given recently present contradictions over how and when he decided to start hoarding documents and ultimately become a “whistleblower,” and how exactly he decided to travel to Hong Kong and meet Poitras and Greenwald. The presumption of Snowden’s innocence and noble intentions is based on unquestionably accepting his and Greenwald’s version of events, with all their contradictions, and believing that Moscow, against all logic and precedent, would just leave him to his own devices.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate passed by a two-thirds majority the USA Freedom Act, which significantly curtailed the government’s sweeping surveillance of phone calls and data gathering. This law would never have passed if Snowden hadn’t revealed to the world what he learned as a junior member of American’s intelligence community. The international debate taking place for the last two years over how to balance a citizen’s right to privacy versus the power of security agencies to breach that right is also thanks to Snowden. Meanwhile, largely due to this debate, today’s latest smartphones and laptops have all been equipped with enhanced security features and personal encryption software is widely available.

But the discussion cannot be limited to the rights of Western civilians alone. Let’s not forget that Snowden is the guest of a superpower that intrudes on its own citizens’ rights with a much heavier hand and at a time when Russian repression is getting much worse: It is waging “hybrid warfare” – which combines “separatist volunteers” on the ground, blatant propaganda on the airwaves and hacking into computers and communication networks – against its neighbors in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and the Baltic states.

Greenwald and his allies argue that, as Western journalists, their responsibility is to hold their own governments accountable. They also emphasize the fact that not many countries were willing to welcome Snowden with open arms. If he had leaked the documents while in the U.S. or a country with an extradition agreement with the U.S, he could have faced a similar fate to that of Chelsea Manning, the army intelligence analyst who passed hundreds of thousands of documents to the WikiLeaks organization and is now serving a 35-year sentence.

That argument may be valid, but it doesn’t excuse the near-total disregard of the much worse trespasses on the Russian side – especially not when there’s a possibility that Snowden, at best, is serving their propaganda and, at worst, that the documents he stole have fallen into their hands.