Challenging Edward Snowden and the information vigilantes

I’ve had strong misgivings about the freelance arbiters of secrecy ever since Wikileaks got off the ground.  Since I’m also institutionally suspicious of the government agencies they raid for information, and particularly suspicious of what the government has mutated into over the past six years, that poses a bit of a dilemma.  Can you respond to the information provided by someone like Edward Snowden, while simultaneously harboring deep misgivings about him claiming the power to decide what secrets should be exposed?  There’s already considerable evidence that he jeopardized national security, while also exposing programs that made many Americans uncomfortable with the extent of the Surveillance State.

This is the point at which seditious conduct is often romanticized: “Of course every revolutionary is both right and wrong!”  That begs the question of whether information vigilantes are qualified to reveal what they do.  And who holds them accountable?  Isn’t accountability the bone of contention here?  Most people would go along with the idea that bad guys should be kept under surveillance.  According to polls, they’re fairly comfortable with the concept of gathering information on suspected bad guys, too… provided there is due process, and those who authorize the surveillance are held accountable for their decisions.  Who holds Snowden accountable for what he’s done?  He seems rather determined to avoid that circumstance.

I returned to those thoughts when reading a critique of Wired’s recent Snowden interview (entitled “The Most Wanted Man In the World,” although I think the nutter in charge of ISIS is angling for that position) by Yishai Schwartz at The New Republic.  Schwartz takes Wired writer James Bamford gently to task for failing to ask Snowden any tough questions, instead producing the sort of hagiography (like unto “a release from a Snowden PR press office,” in Schwartz’s estimation) that enrages anti-authoritarians when written by courtier media about powerful government officials.

Bamford must be congratulated on even getting this interview. Edward Snowden is a very difficult man to find; he suspects that he is the target of unceasing capture and eavesdropping attempts by American intelligence agencies, and he relies on a small circle of associates to screen attempts to contact him. Even Bamford, a longtime NSA critic who Snowden must have known would be an immensely sympathetic interviewer, needed nine months of back-and-forth with Snowden’s lawyers and associates before he was able to set up a meeting. Nevertheless, a responsible journalist wouldn’t allow the difficulty of access to permit a controversial subject to completely hijack the narrative. Unfortunately, this is precisely what Bamford does.

Early in his profile, Bamford explains that he has come to Moscow to identify Snowden’s motivations, to uncover “what drove Snowden to leak hundreds of thousands of top-secret documents.” But Bamford spends very little time actually engaging this question. He doesn’t probe Snowden’s politics, general ideological outlook, or psychological profile. Instead he unhesitatingly accepts Snowden’s claim that his transformation from aspiring marine to anti-government mole was purely a product of encountering surveillance programs that he found disturbing. Of course, he hardly needed to travel to Moscow for that; he could have simply read anything by Glenn Greenwald. The reader is thus left wondering: Is Bamford really trying to understand “what drove Snowden,” or did he make up his mind before he ever sat down?

Actually, I think the reader of everything should wonder that.  Absolute open-mindedness is difficult to achieve, and nearly impossible to sustain.  That’s why I like to spray my own preconceptions on readers with a fire hose.

The simplicity of the profile’s narrative is compounded by Bamford’s bewildering reluctance to ask any challenging questions at all. Bamford never asks why Snowden accepted–and even pursued–a series of high-level jobs in signals intelligence despite his misgivings. Bamford never pushes Snowden to face the moral complexity of his choices. And he never asks Snowden to explain whether it was responsible of him to release troves of information that not even he himself had seen. Most remarkably, Bamford seems unwilling to push Snowden on even his most outlandish claims, like Snowden’s insistence that he tried “to leave a trail of digital bread crumbs” so that his colleagues could determine what he had taken, prepare for future leaks, and mitigate damage. Alas, Snowden explains to a sympathetic Bamford, the NSA was simply too incompetent to decipher his clues. (“I figured they would have a hard time… I didn’t figure they would be completely incapable.”)

Tell me if this narrative makes any sense: Snowden genuinely wanted to mitigate damage from his disclosure and tried to let the government know what he had taken; but rather than simply giving the NSA the very same file that he handed off to Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman, and Glenn Greenwald, he chose to leave a “trail of breadcrumbs”? Now, national security isn’t quite Grimm’s Fairy Tales, nor is it a Dan Brown novel, so perhaps it might have made sense for Bamford to ask why Snowden chose this particular method for helping out his old colleagues at the NSA. And although Bamford is clearly enamored with Snowden’s brilliance (virtually the only family quotation about Snowden that Bamford thought worthy of inclusion was Snowden’s father’s proud mention of his son’s high IQ scores), it’s doubtful that Snowden’s attempts at helping were simply too clever for the combined powers of the American intelligence agencies. But again, Bamford doesn’t see fit to ask.

The Wired interview is huge, but I found Schwartz’ short deconstruction of it even more interesting, because the unasked questions put forth in the New Republic critique track closely with the unease I’ve been feeling since Julian Assange became a household name.  Who watches the watchmen?  And who watches the people who decide to expose the watchmen?  Security is impossible without secrecy – that’s true of everything from police work to counter-espionage and national defense.  But good government is equally impossible without transparency.  At the moment, those competing interests seem far out of alignment with each other.