So how do you figure a guy like Edward Snowden?

He’s the former National Security Agency contractor who violated the rules of his privileged position to steal thousands of classified documents and hand them over to journalists whose ambition could be counted on to package the documents into stories to bust blocks internationally.

Some dare call it treason – look it up in your Webster’s – yet Snowden apparently sleeps well, swaddled in righteousness that he had helped save his country from government surveillance run amok, ironically finding succor in the ur-spy state of Russia with his new best friend, Vladimir Putin.

In an NBC interview from Moscow this week, Snowden puffed himself as a patriotic defender of the Constitution. Perversely, he also tried to bolster his own importance by insisting that he was a “trained” spy who had been given his very own false name – not just a cog in the U.S. intelligence machine.

This is unlikely to end well for Snowden, whom his chief exploiter, journalist Glenn Greenwald, has turned into a figure of Christ-like innocence in his new book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State.”

Snowden, who faces espionage charges in the United States, won’t be able to get around the fact that he stole and released a slew of classified documents just by rebranding thievery and betrayal as high-minded whistleblowing.


To my knowledge, Snowden never came close to exhausting the institutional avenues open to whistleblowers, including congressional oversight committees, before he unloosed the blatting of national secrets. He doesn’t deserve to be called a whistleblower, which is an honorable path, but often a difficult and frustrating one.

Snowden no doubt will one day find himself at home behind bars for a decent interval or perhaps floating around the world in poignant exile from the United States for the rest of his life, like the infamous fictional man without a country, Philip Nolan. That would be deserved. But that’s only me, a former intelligence officer, speaking.

As a journalist and a citizen, I recognize that some good came out of the publication of stories by Greenwald and others based on Snowden’s stolen documents, confirming and expanding, as they did, coverage of the NSA’s preposterous data overreach and privacy violations. The intelligence community shares the blame if it now feels forced to reduce the number of dots it can generate and connect to protect the homeland.

Journalists on the story – notably Greenwald and his colleagues Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman – will do just fine. They’ll get their professional prizes and book and movie deals. They won’t have to worry about the government, which is loath to get into a major First Amendment battle it is sure to lose. Officialdom will be intimidated, anyway, by the media massed against it behind the breathtaking arrogance of Greenwald’s Manichaean rhetoric.

Under the Greenwald dispensation, we can’t trust government to protect our constitutional rights while keeping us safe, but we can trust a man who rationalizes the theft of classified documents by others and arrogates to himself the right to choose which national secrets can be publicly blazoned, even though he has no way to know the consequences of their publication.

The public should be as wary of the new dispensation as it was of the old. The Snowden affair brings home the hazards of putting blind faith in the good offices of government. Just as surely, however, it reminds us that other institutions, particularly the media, are also short of perfection, and their behavior deserves to be greeted with as much scrutiny as the government’s.

The documents provided Greenwald with some big stories of abuse of power by the government. But the theft and publication of thousands of secrets under the nose of our intelligence establishment – a direct threat to our national security – was a bigger story.

The proper public response must be broadly skeptical when the behavior of the messenger is even more appalling than the content of the message.

— Special to the Press Herald

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