Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro offered asylum to Edward Snowden, and Nicaragua and Bolivia and Ecuador agitated to win his residency too. Unhappy with this menu of possible refuges, Snowden is now asking Russia to let him defect. The prospect of a Russian pleading presents Glenn Greenwald with a problem, however: because it is actually against the law to be gay in Putin’s Moscow, Snowden would more inaccessible to Greenwald there than Assange is at the Ecuadoran embassy in London. And surely a South American country would provide a more fitting base of operations for Snowden’s world outlaw tour. Didn’t Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid go to Bolivia?
Yes, just change “NSA” to “bank,” substitute “money” for “secrets,” and a truer complexion of Snowden’s actions becomes possible to appreciate. He presents himself as a Robin Hood of secrets when a better analogue is Pretty Boy Floyd. Floyd had fans, just as Edward Snowden has fans; he had propagandists, most famously Woody Guthrie. Floyd lived in an America that was probably less sympathetic to bankers in 1930 than we are today, but it was still against the law to rob a bank.
Oh, you say the bank was too big to fail? Sorry, but you still go to jail.
So you can call Snowden an internet folk hero if you want, but you cannot say that he did not break the law. And before anyone trots out Daniel Ellsberg to concern-troll about the possibility of a drone strike on poor Mr. Snowden in a paranoid scifi update of Bonnie and Clyde, remember that the applicable federal whistleblower statutes in this story were created because of Ellsberg’s revelations. Those same laws were never good enough for Ellsberg, and they have been summarily ignored by Mr. Snowden, who would rather cut his own libertarian path to transparency-hero status. He don’t need no stinkin laws!
Moreover, Snowden’s lawbreaking had clear motivations putting it outside the realm of whistleblowing and into the realm of purely political action. This is why Snowden’s “whistle” sounds more and more like hostage-taking all the time. Whereas his chief interlocutor used to say that Snowden had carefully vetted his stolen information to avoid harming the United States, now Greenwald warns that Snowden may use his stolen information to hurt the United States if Obama doesn’t stop being mean to him. That is hostage-taking behavior, not heroism, and Greenwald is abetting it.
Vladimir Putin understood all this very well when he said Snowden could only stay in Russia if he stopped disclosing secrets. Snowden is in possession of stolen information, and the ”whistle” he blows seems rather like a publicity stunt for an ACLU lawsuit about metadata. Having already established a relationship with WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and Glenn Greenwald before he ever worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden fabricated digital keys in order to access information for which he was not cleared. Perhaps he learned how to do that while taking a professional development class in hacking three years ago. The timeline does not make him a whistleblower, it makes him a criminal.
Journalists should ask Greenwald about all this. They should also ask Glenn Greenwald about his triangulation with Julian Assange. Snowden’s press releases sound like Assange, and Snowden’s choices reflect Assange’s priorities — especially his decisions about which countries to embarrass. America’s allies get special attention, whereas states that largely oppose American foreign policy are left alone. This Assangian algorithm is reflected in the curious narrative curve of Snowden’s travels.
His first stop was China, the world’s number one police state, where the government spends almost twice as much on domestic surveillance as foreign surveillance. China has thousands of years of experience in covert operations and intelligence both within and without its borders, and the current regime has written the book on 21st Century authoritarianism.
While in Hong Kong, Snowden publicly disclosed that the National Security Agency can read Chinese SMS text messages. Since the Chinese government has spent a decade developing their own extensive capability to read citizens’ SMS messages in order to suppress protest organizers, this actually worked to the embarrassment of the regime. China doesn’t need to know how the NSA monitors Skype conversations, or how many; they have their own perfectly good Skype spying system. Chinese internet users are also channeled away from “crime” and “obscenity” by a Green Dam firewall. Unsurprisingly, Maoist capitalism was unimpressed by Snowden’s public revelations.
From Hong Kong, he continued his getaway to Moscow, where he snagged on a cancelled passport. Contrary to the endless hyperbole and polemics, cancelled passports are not a new crimefighting technique. If those were stolen gold bars in Snowden’s suitcases instead of stolen secrets, his passport would be no good anywhere. Snowden is apparently still holed up at the Novotel in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, which one visiting AP reporter described as an “Orwellian” environment. Without travel documents, Edward Snowden is stuck in limbo.
Snowden had not secured a second passport in advance and had no Plan B for this eventuality. He has many criticisms to make about American spying, but Snowden doesn’t seem to know the first thing about being a spy, and he is absurdly lost in the world of spies. Like China, Russia boasts a long tradition of domestic and foreign spying, and both regimes understand what kind of “freedom activist” Snowden really is.
Russia is one of the worst countries to be a journalist; mysterious men kill Russian journalists all the time. The Russian state constantly spies on citizens across all internet platforms to make sure no one is planning to hold a punk rock concert in a church or has a limp wrist. For a week, the great irony of Edward Snowden’s Freedom Tour was that it seemed to lead inexorably away from the free society he once enjoyed and to lands which enjoy less and less actual freedom, especially press freedom, and that have walked backwards away from freedom in recent years.
At his press conference yesterday, Snowden spoke of his Hawaiian Paradise Lost as if he was inhumanely prevented from returning, and had not actually chosen to leave it.
This same cognitive dissonance is reflected in Glenn Greenwald’s polemics, which are often indistinguishable from North Korean propaganda. Russia is bad enough, but the South American candidates for Snowden’s final destination are at least equally bad; we could cite any of them. My favorite is Ecuador, where Julian Assange would flee, but let Venezuela stand in for the bunch, as the Maduro regime has made the most affirmative offer of sanctuary to Snowden.
Venezuela has seen quite an assault on journalism, and Venezuelan media is now in an actual state of deep capture to the regime. The late dictator Hugo Chavez, who never worked a day in a newsroom, was posthumously awarded that nation’s highest journalism award on the premise that “the mainstream media serves the interests of the oligarchy and imperialism.” In practice, that Orwellian phrase means Chavez taught Venezuelan reporters to toe the party line while leading a Great Leap Forward into the 21st Century surveillance state.
Yes, for all of Glenn Greenwald’s flaming hyperbole about the horrors of police surveillance technology, it is Venezuela that already boasts actual police surveillance drones. A central internet hub allows the regime to monitor all Venezuelan web traffic, and the regime is developing a CCTV surveillance system in major cities, with priests and ministers deputized to perform closed-circuit “crimefighting.” Freedom!
“We are evaluating between a Chinese and a French model so as to take the decision which adapts to Venezuela’s needs and that it allows us, through video surveillance, to reduce crime rates,” said the Minister during an inspection in southern Caracas. (Emphasis mine)
Chavez is dead, but Maduro is leading the way in police militarization, so I don’t imagine things will improve soon. Had Snowden leaped at the Venezuelan offer like a stereotypical bandit and somehow smuggled himself out of Moscow, he could be famewhoring in prestigious exile right now. He could even visit Brazil to chat with Greenwald about a freedom agenda and civil liberties while the police beat protesters outside Glenn’s compound.
What? You didn’t think Mr. Civil Liberties lived in the favelas, did you?
Heck, Brazil wrote the Portuguese-language manual on police brutality. Amazonia may be poor, but living there well takes money. So Greenwald doesn’t write much about the riots and demonstrations in his expatriate domicile; complaints and hyperbole about the National Security Agency pay better. Greenwald gained notoriety with polemics on the brutalities of the Bush administration and the need to restore rule of law in America. But these days, Glenn Greenwald denounces laws against disclosure of classified information; disregards laws about whistleblowing; disqualifies passport regulations, and defies cross-examination about Edward Snowden’s hostage-taking.
It’s good work if you can get it, but total dissonance is a prerequisite. Greenwald makes Snowden’s possession of dangerous secrets an issue, then writes thousands of words about how the media is failing America by making Edward Snowden the issue. In a sense, he’s right; Glenn Greenwald ought, and of right ought to be, the man under the spotlight answering questions. This is his story, and he should answer questions without being a petulant ass. Foremost among those questions should be whether Assange’s donors foot the bill at the Sheremetyavo.