One year after Edward Snowden leaked secret documents exposing the snooping apparatus of the National Security Agency (NSA), the debate over how he should be viewed – venal traitor or patriotic whistleblower – has taken a fierce new turn with each side accusing the other of economies with the truth.
It is a highly unusual propaganda battle that was reignited last week with an interview given by Mr Snowden to NBC News. He had asserted that he had worked as a fully fledged spy for the NSA rather than as an analyst and, more crucially, that he had decided to hand over the secret materials only after he had tried to raise his concerns about the snooping practices with his superiors but to no avail.
While not quite calling him a liar, the NSA said it had found only one email from Mr Snowden before he absconded and that it had been limited to a narrow question to the agency’s legal office about the standing of presidential executive orders vs established law. “The email did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse,” the NSA flatly said in a statement.
Thus the matter is quickly devolving into a he-says, she-says stand-off that is unlikely to clarify anything. In another statement published yesterday by The Washington Post, Mr Snowden, 30, suggested that the NSA’s presentation of the records was “incomplete” or “tailored”, implying that the agency is either withholding other emails or missives he directed towards his bosses or hasn’t done enough to find them.
This was the first time the NSA had deemed it necessary to make public any internal communications between itself and Mr Snowden before he fled on 20 May last year to Hong Kong. But while the outcome of this struggle clearly matters to the agency, the stakes for Ms Snowden are much higher if he hopes ever to emerge from hiding in Russia and seek vindication – rather than imprisonment – in the United States.
While Mr Snowden has tricky public relations concerns, so too might the journalists who received the materials from him and put them in the public sphere. They have been rewarded with a shared Pulitzer Prize. But Glenn Greenwald, formerly of The Guardian, found himself the target of withering opprobrium in a New York Times book review last week for his just-published account of the leaks, No Place to Hide.
Written by the veteran commentator Michael Kinsley, the review not only accused Mr Greenwald of coming across as “unpleasant” but also took him to task for assigning to journalists a right to publish government secrets regardless of the consequences.
“I can’t see how we can have a policy that authorises newspapers and reporters to chase down and publish any national security leaks they can find,” Mr Kinsley wrote. “This isn’t Easter and these are not eggs. Someone gets to decide and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.”
Thus was sparked a subplot to the wider drama with other media voices standing up for Mr Greenwald, including The New York Times’s own readers’ advocate, Margaret Sullivan. “There’s a lot about this piece that is unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards,” she said. “The sneering tone about Mr Greenwald, for example; he is called a ‘go-between’ instead of a journalist and is described as a ‘self-righteous sourpuss’.”
For the US government, the job of countering Mr Snowden’s assertions last week fell first to John Kerry, the Secretary of State, who gave him no margin. “He should man up and come back to the United States if he has a complaint about what’s the matter with American surveillance,” he told CBS News. “Come back here and stand with our system of justice and make his case.”
And Mr Kerry sought to remind Americans of the government’s view that Mr Snowden is not just a traitor but one whose actions have had serious consequences. “The fact is he has damaged his country, very significantly, in many, many ways,” he said. “He has hurt operational security. He has told terrorists what they can now do to be able to avoid detection, and I find it sad and disgraceful.”
The priority for Mr Snowden will surely remain proving that he indeed raised red flags with his superiors about the NSA internet and telephone surveillance practices – his revelations were later to spark a national and international debate over the proper extent of the eavesdropping on citizens by governments and to trigger important reforms of the NSA itself – and that he met a brick wall. Only that way might he travel from traitor to whistleblower.
“If the White House is interested in the whole truth, rather than the NSA’s clearly tailored and incomplete leak today for a political advantage, it will require the NSA to ask my former colleagues, management and the senior leadership team about whether I, at any time, raised concerns about the NSA’s improper and at times unconstitutional surveillance activities,” he told the Post. “It will not take long to receive an answer.
“The fact is that I did raise such concerns both verbally and in writing, and on multiple, continuing occasions – as I have always, and as NSA has always denied.”
In its statement, the NSA implied that it has indeed looked hard for any communications from Mr Snowden at the time and has found nothing. “There are numerous avenues that Mr Snowden could have used to raise other concerns or whistleblower allegations. We have searched for additional indications of outreach from him in those areas and to date have not discovered any engagements related to his claims,” it said.