Renegade National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden has been praised as a heroic whistleblower who exposed illegal and immoral actions by the United States government.
Perhaps this was true at the beginning, such as when Snowden outlined the NSA’s quasi-legal practice of scooping up telephone metadata of millions of Americans over Verizon’s telecommunication lines.
But as time goes on, Snowden’s leaks have increasingly related to international spying and other legitimate actions of the U.S. government, which he has neither legal nor moral justification for exposing.
Snowden’s leaks include outing NSA foreign surveillance targets to the Brazilian government, the German government, the U.N., and even the Chinese government. Just this week reports came out that the NSA had targeted Indian diplomats for spying at their Embassy in D.C. and in New York City.
Even Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Snowden saga, said that he would not have published those Chinese addresses.
“What motivated that leak though was a need to ingratiate himself to the people of Hong Kong and China,” Greenwald told The Daily Beast.
Snowden, caught in Moscow and looking for asylum countries, would presumably have felt the need to “ingratiate” himself by feeding information to Moscow as well. While some may call it “pure speculation” that Russia and China in some way got information from Snowden, still others take it as a matter of common sense.
Following the China disclosures, Snowden “lost of all his standing to be considered a whistleblower,” Joshua Foust, former intelligence analyst turned freelance reporter, told Business Insider. “It’s silly to pretend like they’re not … rival government[s]. Massive amounts of government and corporate breaches come from Russia and China, on incredibly sensitive targets.”
Another example of Snowden’s dubious leaks includes his disclosure of British GCHQ’s location of a surveillance center in the Middle East.
“So we should just be friends with everyone?” Foust asks. “I genuinely don’t get why people don’t understand how that [the surveillance center] serves legitimate security interests.”
Meanwhile the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman — who notably quibbled with Snowden about disclosing certain information — recently published a piece about a government paper Snowden supplied called “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.” Drones are in fact controversial, but Snowden didn’t leak any evidence of their misuse. Instead, he leaked a comprehensive guide to their battle for security against weaknesses.
Luckily, Gellman exercised caution, choosing not to publish anything he thought damaging to national security from this report.
In the same article, Gellman mentions that Snowden had distilled “dozens of intelligence assessments” over the last seven years. It’s not clear why Snowden was doing this in the first place, when his crusade arguably centered on domestic spying practices.
“I’ll just repeat for the record that Snowden told me he wanted me to decide for myself what was in the public interest to publish, accounting for potential harm,” Gellman wrote in an email to Business Insider. “If he had wanted to dump the whole thing online, he could have done that with a lot less personal risk.”
Foust, who argues that espionage is a normal function of government, says that should Snowden ever leave Russia, he should focus on the domestic spying issues.
“That’s the only way to get popular support for [his] cause,” said Foust.
Indeed, most of the reforms gaining steam in Congress have more to do with raising the bar for domestic intelligence gathering.
As for spying on foreign bodies, “Nobody wants to be seen as weakening defenses against terrorism,” Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told Bloomberg.
In any case, spying is an accepted part of foreign relations. The U.S. government employs spies, as does every other modern government. These spies gather intelligence on other governments for use in statecraft (diplomatic negotiations) as well for military application.
Richard Lourie of The Moscow Times wrote last year:
Like the poor, spies are always with us. Everybody does it: Enemies spy on each other, but so do allies. During the Cold War, the Soviets were, of course, the most active in spying on the U.S., but the Israelis were right behind them in second place.
And Michael Bohn of the same publication wrote this gem, titled, “Spying is a Sovereign Right”:
One of the more ridiculous aspects of the Edward Snowden affair has been Russia’s feigned and exaggerated indignation over his revelations that the National Security Agency conducted a spying campaign aimed at Russia and other foreign countries.
At this point, it’s pretty clear that he should not be considered (or eligible for protections for being) a whistleblower, who is “a person, usually an employee in a government agency or private enterprise, who discloses to the public or to those in authority, mismanagement, corruption, illegality, or some other wrongdoing.”
It’s up for debate whether he is an American hero.