In case you haven’t seen it, there’s been a dramatic new turn in the NSA/PRISM disclosures story. Working with Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian the leaker has revealed himself, fully. Name, photographs, a lengthy interview and a video explaining his decisions.
Whatever you think of his actions and the equities involved, you should take a moment to watch the video. His name is Edward Snowden. He’s 29 years old and seems, for lack of a better word, like a pretty normal or average 29 year old American man, perhaps slightly more hipsterish than some would expect from someone so deep inside the NSA. He describes a series of jobs as a computer technician and systems administrator in various parts of the US Intelligence Community over almost a decade, first inside the government and later as an embedded contractor.
He is – that awful word – articulate and seems to have given quite a bit of thought to his actions. He is – also – notably quick to distinguish what he’s done from Bradley Manning, making clear that he did not leak information that would harm individuals or do what he deems real harm to the United States as opposed to revealing the existence and full scope of the NSA’s and US Intelligence Community’s surveillance apparatus. As some of you know, I’ve never been very sympathetic to Manning, thinking him mainly a naif who revealed US government secrets in such a wildly indiscriminate manner as to lose almost any conceivable justification for his acts. This appears to be a different case. Snowden seems to be who Manning’s supporters always wanted to pretend he was but wasn’t.
It’s only fair for me to say that, in my mind, they’re fundamentally the same.
The Guardian, in its promotion of this story is one of the “most significant leaks in US political history.” I’m not sure that’s necessarily true, though it’s difficult to come up with other contenders. But by revealing so much and then revealing himself, I do think he’s taken the story into a genuinely unprecedented place. He wasn’t caught, as Manning was. He’s freely revealed himself, albeit from foreign soil. And he’s made it possible for himself to speak directly to the American public before he gets taken into custody, if that happens. That puts a human dimension to this story that may lead in unexpected directions.
Though this part is a little cryptic in the discussion, Snowden seems to hope that he will be able to get asylum in a friendly country. He’s currently holed up in Hong Kong. And there’s a vague suggestion in the video that he might seek asylum either there or in mainland China. In the accompanying article he says his first choice would be asylum in Iceland, though frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine that a country both diplomatically and geographically close to the US would ever offer it. Whatever the ins and outs of where, though he seems resigned to the various potential consequences of his acts, he at least hopes to remain at liberty in another country. And his move to Hong Kong seems the first concrete act along those lines. I would assume this will fairly quickly lead to a decision on the part of the Chinese government about whether to take custody of him and turn him over to US authorities. Conceivably it might even test the still significant de facto independence of the Hong Kong SAR.
In the substance of his comments, Snowden suggests that the kinds of surveillance we’ve been hearing about is widely abused, though he doesn’t state specifically just how that is. I think it’s probably fair to say that most people who support this kind of surveillance in a general sense assume, hope – choose your verb – that there are technical and legal protections in place to curb or prevent abuses, even though they can never be full proof. I’d be very curious to hear more specifically what kinds of things he’s referring to.
Finally, just who is Snowden, in the context of the US Intelligence Community? Did he have access and visibility into quite as much as he suggests? He suggests that as a computer technician he essentially had a view into basically everything. That’s not inherently implausible given the role of specialized technical knowledge. But that makes me skeptical. I have little doubt that people in the IC will try to present him as a more marginal figure than he described, regardless of whether it’s true. But that’s another point that has me curious. It seems pretty clear, based on what he’s already leaked, that he had some fairly high clearance, if only to have access to the stuff he leaked. But again, these are points I’m very curious to hear more about.