UPDATE: in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, Edward Snowden admits everything I just said below about his motivations and objectives:
Edward Snowden secured a job with a US government contractor for one reason alone – to obtain evidence on Washington’s cyberspying networks, the South China Morning Post can reveal.
For the first time, Snowden has admitted he sought a position at Booz Allen Hamilton so he could collect proof about the US National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programmes ahead of planned leaks to the media.
This is no longer about a whistleblower who told the truth he discovered. It is the story of a man who lied to the government in order to access classified information and embarrass the government by reporting that information in a false context.
Edward Snowden was supposed to be on a plane to Ecuador by way of Havana, Cuba at this hour, having left the world’s number one surveillance state (China) only to be refused entry to the world’s worst country to be a journalist (Russia). It is unclear exactly where he is right now. Snowden and his interlocutor, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, will call this a flight for freedom. In fact, it is the rapid disintegration of a false narrative. Qualitatively, Snowden is as much of a “whistleblower” as Curveball was, and his half-baked conspiracy theory should be regarded with the same jaundiced eye that the press ought to have given WMD claims in Iraq.
According to Greenwald, Snowden approached him in February of 2013. But Snowden was not working for Booz Allen Hamilton yet. When he left his job at the beginning of May to abscond to Hong Kong, Snowden had only worked for his employer for four weeks. At that point, he had barely been trained on the topics he has been discussing with Greenwald, and still had no authority to initiate surveillance or collect information. In fact, as a technology specialist, it is very unlikely that Snowden ever would have received such authorization, since he was never trained as an operator or analyst. Little wonder that working NSA analysts, as well as the NSA Director, call Snowden’s claims about the privileges of those positions completely false.
Snowden’s motivations are quite clear. He has revealed himself to be a Ronpaulite, steeped in the half-informed, paranoid culture of the internet generation. Take this glib gem, for example, in which we learn what Snowden’s problem with the president is:
Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge.
In a simpleton’s world, President Obama just doesn’t want to close Guantanamo, or rather doesn’t want it enough. Never mind that he keeps trying, or that Congress keeps fighting him to keep Camp X-Ray open — this political fight can be boiled down to lack of spine, because all it should take is some “political capital.” Neither Greenwald nor Snowden appreciates that all political capital would evaporate if Obama created the “Bush war crimes” circus of their dreams.
Snowden’s notion that the United States should not spy on any country with which it is not at war? Charmingly childlike, but such an unprecedented arrangement would leave the United States unaware of brewing conflicts until war has already broken out, and so would actually serve to encourage more wars. Snowden’s bizarre, tinfoil-hat concern about being killed by a drone strike underscores the naivete and weirdness of this world view, which he presumably held before he applied for a job with Booz Allen Hamilton.
The point here is not that Snowden believes in things that aren’t true; rather, Snowden sought hero status with a segment of the culture that believes such things are true, and for them, Greenwald is a primary source of polemical wisdom. Greenwald and his audience are prepared to believe, and want to believe, that the national security state is a clear and present danger to freedom. Snowden is counting on their confirmation bias to make up for the inherent weaknesses in his story.
Glenn Greenwald keeps appearing on television to insist his original story is still valid, even as the scandal continues to devolve on key points. Worse, the media at large still seems incapable of vetting this story in the way it deserves: the best POLITICO can do is call Snowden “overexposed.” So far, few observers have had the courage to simply call Greenwald’s source a fraud, or to pronounce the story fraudulent.
Blogger Bob Cesca, who has provided the best service in this regard, rightly compares Snowden to James O’Keefe; Charles Johnson says that Snowden’s sole motivation is to embarrass the United States; Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum finds him fishy. But Greenwald was on Meet The Press just yesterday serving up the same nothingburger. Whenever he is challenged on details, Greenwald becomes defensive, even petulant — but his reporting never improves beyond the polemics of his editorial writing. His continued status as a credible analyst of Snowden’s information is the most inexplicable part of this story.
Take “direct access:” no two words lent the story as much oxygen as these. Yet they turn out to mean something very different from what Greenwald insinuated at the beginning. The charge that the NSA enjoys “direct access” to the servers of major tech firms has been walked back by the Washington Post and Greenwald’s own publication, but he has yet to issue any kind of correction. Instead, Greenwald has never adequately explained the technical elements of this explosive charge, has refused even friendly requests to elucidate, and now wants everyone to forget he ever said anything about it.
What Greenwald cannot say, and will never admit, is that he didn’t know enough to understand that Snowden snowed him.
For his part, Snowden has admitted that the NSA does not have a policy allowing that kind of “direct access” – but says that they could change the policy anytime they want, and this is somehow just as bad. Those moving goalposts are reflected in the shifting concerns of the commentariat, which no longer complains that Obama’s NSA doesn’t have the right policy in place, but rather worries that another administration might change the policy later.
That would be fine if we were discussing the necessity of electing presidents who don’t abuse their powers, but instead we have gotten a false conversation about this president supposedly allowing abuses. In fact, Obama’s administration has consistently worked to clean up the NSA – a point entirely elided from Greenwald’s coverage.
We have also learned that PRISM and NSA wiretapping have taken place within the FISA system, with a court issuing secret warrants. Here, again, the goalposts have moved: now the complaint is that America’s 35-year old legal oversight system for secret intelligence has become a rubber stamp for tyranny, and should be abolished. Never mind that just last year, the FISA court forced the NSA to rewrite its already-complex rules about collecting domestic data, including metadata. Never mind that NSA surveillance of an American citizen requires a FISA warrant. The same thing is being said for Congressional oversight of these programs: sure, this check-and-balance system exists, but it’s not good enough to protect us from abuse. Only a complete overhaul can ensure our freedom.
As with Snowden’s naive beliefs about the ethics of spying, the disappointment is that President Obama has competently managed our national security infrastructure instead of disestablishing it altogether. If this reminds you of Ronpaulites yapping about the Federal Reserve, you are getting it.
Georgetown University law professor Laura K. Donohue encapsulated the phenomenon last Friday with the headline of her Washington Post column, “NSA surveillance may be legal — but it’s unconstitutional.” So far, neither Snowden or Greenwald has been able to prove any actual crime has been committed, or that the existing system has broken down, or that the abuses of the Bush-era NSA have been repeated, much less exceeded.
Critics of the national security state are reduced to the same complaints they have been making for a very long time. These conversations may be worth having, but they are not the story that Greenwald wants to tell, and they are definitely not the story that Snowden is peddling.
Just as Snowden embellished his compensation at Booz Allen Hamilton, only to walk it back later, it appears that he padded his educational resume while applying for the position. His story about working on a black op for the CIA in Switzerland? Probably false, and the Swiss are the first to say so. Snowden’s tall tales should be giant red flags, but so far Greenwald has not been required to address any of them.
On one level, these events do reveal a problem with the outsourcing of our national security apparatus in the last decade. USIS, the company which was supposed to vet Snowden’s resume and research his background, appears to have failed its primary client (the United States government) when screeners accepted Snowden’s dubious explanation of discrepancies in his education record. But on another level, they show Edward Snowden to be far less of an informed source than Greenwald would have us believe. How much did he actually learn in just four weeks on the job?
China, which spends almost twice as much on domestic surveillance as foreign intelligence, has probably figured this out, since Snowden has been allowed to leave that country rather than being granted asylum. His non-welcome in Russia suggests the FSB also understands that Snowden has nothing they really want. Both countries are happy to see the United States embarrassed, but they understand Snowden for what he is: a famewhoring fake with a PowerPoint file and a bullshit story. It remains to be seen whether America’s press will prove as wise as Chinese and Russian spies. Greenwald certainly isn’t.