NSA leaker/whistleblower Edward Snowden appeared on Russian television yesterday with President Vladimir Putin.
Putin was hosting an annual “question and answer” TV program, where he purportedly “takes questions from the public.” One of the questions was from Edward Snowden.
Snowden asked whether Russia spies on its citizens. Putin, incredibly, answered “no.” (The video is below.)
There is so much wrong with this.
Snowden, you’ll recall, sought exile in Russia after being sought by the US for espionage. And while one can appreciate that, if you’re on the run and Russia is one of the few countries on the planet that will take you, then Russia it is, Snowden crossed the line yesterday, as he has done before.
Wrong time to be giving Putin a bear hug
It’s one thing to be a whistleblower, wrapped in the flag. It’s another to aid our country’s adversaries. And at the moment, Putin is the bad guy, and Snowden gave him a big bear hug on national TV in the middle of a growing international crisis.
The United States – and much of the world – is in the middle of a huge effort to isolate Putin in the hopes of saving what is left of the Ukrainian nation. Putin has already invaded and annexed Ukrainian Crimea, and Russian agents are now sowing civil discord in eastern Ukraine, in the hopes, the thinking goes, of fomenting a civil war that would “necessitate” Russian intervention to “save the day,” and conveniently annex Ukraine’s industry-rich eastern province.
The last thing anyone who claims to care about human rights and civil liberties should be doing at this moment is giving aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin. But that’s exactly what Snowden did. He didn’t just “ask a question.” He knew the stakes for Putin, for the US, for Europe, and most importantly, for Ukraine, and chose to buttress the Russian president while diminishing the American one. It was incredibly poor timing by someone who, if “perhaps” politically tone-deaf himself, has ample advisers in America who know a thing or two about politics and PR.
Snowden must have known Putin would lie, and was lying
Not to mention, how could Snowden ask Putin such a ludicrous question that he knew Putin would lie about? As Eli Lake at the Daily Beast documents, Russian domestic spying puts America’s to shame. (And you’ll note in the article that even Snowden’s usual defenders are somewhat tepid in their support of his appearance on Putin-TV.)
“I think it was ridiculous,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services who is also a professor at New York University. Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who has broken major stories on the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, and is a Daily Beast contributor, was only slightly more charitable. “Putin never directly lies, he just tells half truths and his answer was a half truth,” he said. “In terms of what is going on inside the country, he was not correct. We have all signs of mass surveillance. My view is Russian surveillance is much more intrusive than what you have in the United States.”
But the FSB has far more power to eavesdrop on Russian and foreign citizens than the FBI or the NSA. In practice, according to Soldatov, the FSB has a back door into every server belonging to Russia’s telecom companies and Internet service provider. Snowden himself exposed a program known as PRISM that provided these so-called back doors to the NSA in the United States. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence last year published court records that showed in some cases the collection of Internet traffic targeted at foreign nationals inadvertently collected the Internet traffic of U.S. citizens for whom the agency had no warrant.
But in Russia, there is no special court or even a parliamentary committee to check the FSB’s work in the first place. “The interception is conducted by the ISP internet provider and not the law enforcement agency in the United States,” Soldatov said. “In Russia interception is conducted by the FSB directly. They have remote access to all Internet service providers and all telecom companies and they don’t have to even ask permission to view any of this data. While the NSA has collected all call records to search themselves, the FSB can actually listen to the content of phone calls without a warrant. Nobody would ask for this warrant because the ISP has no security clearance to see the warrant.”
Snowden’s “whistleblower” defense no longer holds up
I had concerns about Snowden from the beginning. The fact that he went in to the spy business and was shocked to find that actual spying takes place, struck me as more bizarre than naive. It just didn’t sound credible that anyone qualified enough to work at the NSA didn’t realize that the NSA was involved in some pretty hairy stuff.
But let’s take him at his word, maybe Snowden was shocked by all the spying he suddenly found at America’s #1 spy agency. Then another shoe dropped, that blew Snowden’s “shock and awe” defense out of the water: Snowden leaked the details of US spying on Russia. That disclosure had nothing to do with the civil liberties of Americans, which supposedly is the issue motivating Snowden, and it’s supposedly the reason Snowden isn’t releasing any documents about Russia’s spy program, or any other antagonist of the US – because his goal is protecting American citizens, not ratting on the Russians. So how exactly did Edward Snowden protect American citizens when he divulged the details of how the US spied on Russia’s leaders? And while it’s fine for some to allege that Snowden’s revelations were no surprise to the Russians, so no harm no foul, the why did he do it at all? We’re to believe that Snowden stole highly-classified documents in order to expose US spying on Russia that everyone already knew we were doing? That’s not whistleblowing. That doesn’t even make sense.
Then, Snowden did it again. This time leaking the details of US spying on China. Ditto to the fact that this disclosure did zero to help the civil liberties of Americans, and thus doesn’t explain why Snowden refused to leak the “crimes” of any country but America and its ally, the UK. If Snowden truly cared about civil liberties – and his revelations about US spying on Russia and China suggest otherwise - he’d care about those liberties in Russia and China too. And he doesn’t.
It’s also odd that Snowden thought it wise to leak the details of US spying on these two countries in particular. China, and now Russia again, are two of America’s top competitors in the world, if not the top competitors – economically in the case of China, and strategically in the case of both. Though Russia is severely weakened as compared to its Soviet heyday, the Ukraine debacle proves that Russia can still cause serious damage when it wants to. And if the Ukrainian crisis escalates, and Russia cuts off energy supplies to Europe, get ready for some rather fragile economies to plummet, and possibly take the rest of us along with them. Shoring up the national security of Russia and China vis-a-vis the United States is not in the national interest of the United States, or of this country’s citizens. So why did Snowden steal those documents from the NSA at all, if part of his overall intent wasn’t to simply harm the United States?
But some make the argument that Snowden didn’t just stumble upon the offending documents. Rather, they say, Snowden took the job at the NSA with the explicit intent of finding noxious classified material to leak. And if that’s the case, then he might not be a whistleblower at all.
How can you be a whistleblower if you take a job with the intent of leaking classified documents that you don’t yet know exist, about a program you’ve not yet even heard of?
Per se Snowden didn’t know about the to-be-leaked programs before he got to the NSA, otherwise he wouldn’t have needed to join the NSA to get the documents about the programs in the first place. If Snowden already knew about the noxious programs while working at Booz-Allen, he could have gone public then and there. It sounds like Snowden joined the NSA, went in blind, had already chosen to become a whistleblower before finding any wrongdoing, and simply hadn’t yet found the appropriate whistle.
And that doesn’t make you a whistleblower, or a hero. It simply makes you a guy looking for a fight.
UPDATE: Snowden has responded, via an op ed in the Guardian, to the criticism he’s been getting for the Putin appearance.