You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange If You Knew What They Really Thought?

We live in the age of the leaker. Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange are celebrated as heroes on op-ed pages and across glossy magazine spreads.

By exposing the secrets of the government, they claim to have revealed its systematic disregard for individual freedom and privacy. Theirs are not the politics of left against right, or liberals against conservatives, or Democrats against Republicans, but of the individual against the state. To oppose them is to side with power against liberty, surveillance against freedom, tyrannical secrecy against democratic openness.

What’s astonishing about their ascent to heroism is the breadth of their support. The embrace of the antiwar left and the libertarian right was to be expected. But effusions of praise for the leakers can also be found throughout the liberal establishment. The New York Times, which has come to rely on the leakers as prize sources, is now crusading on Snowden’s behalf. Its editorial page has celebrated him for having “done his country a great service” and supports clemency for the crimes he has committed. A stellar array of liberal intellectuals and pundits, from David Bromwich and Robert Kuttner to Richard Cohen and Ezra Klein, have hailed Snowden, as have elected officials, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Ron Wyden. To criticize the leakers, as the legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin and a few other writers have done, is to invite moral condemnation. Even mild objections to their methods are dismissed as damning proof of either corruption—“principle-free, hackish, and opportunistic,” in Greenwald’s words—or outright complicity with Big Brother.

So far, the adulatory treatment the leakers have received closely mirrors their own self-presentation. But important caches of evidence have gone largely unexamined by the media. Documents are, of course, the leakers’ stock-in-trade—and they have produced quite a few documents of their own. The Internet houses a variety of their writings for message boards, blogs, and magazines. Much of this writing was produced before the leakers entertained the possibility of a global audience. They are documents in which one can glimpse their deepest beliefs and true motives. What they reveal is at odds with the flattering coverage the leakers have received, and goes beyond personal eccentricities or dubious activities in the service of noble goals. They reveal an agenda that even the leakers’ most dedicated admirers should question.

Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange hardly subscribe to identical beliefs, and differ in their levels of sophistication. They have held, at one time or another, a crazy-quilt assortment of views, some of them blatantly contradictory. But from an incoherent swirl of ideas, a common outlook emerges. The outlook is neither a clear-cut doctrine nor a philosophy, but something closer to a political impulse that might be described, to borrow from the historian Richard Hofstadter, as paranoid libertarianism. Where liberals, let alone right-wingers, have portrayed the leakers as truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors, that’s hardly their goal. In fact, the leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.

Edward Snowden has presented his decision to steal nearly two million files from the National Security Agency (NSA) and release them to the world as a simple tale of a political awakening. He recounts the story this way: While working for the CIA in Geneva in 2007, he began having serious misgivings about the Bush-era surveillance state. Even then, Snowden considered leaking classified material. He stayed his hand because of the election of Barack Obama, who had vowed to reform the intelligence system. When the changes he had hoped for didn’t arrive, he became bitterly disillusioned. “[I] watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in,” Snowden later told The Guardian. “I got hardened.”

That’s when Snowden hatched his plan for crippling the NSA. According to a Reuters report, in April 2012, while working as an NSA contractor for Dell, Inc., he began downloading information about eavesdropping programs. Then, last March, Snowden took a job in Hawaii with the government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, intending to steal an even vaster collection of classified material. “[The job] granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked. That is why I accepted that position,” he later confessed to the South China Morning Post. Of course, as he explains it, he undertook his illicit mission with the most principled of motivations. The NSA’s activities pose “an existential threat to democracy,” he said. Closer examination of Snowden’s background, however, suggests that his motives were more complicated.

Snowden’s history is very difficult to piece together, not least because the CIA and the NSA are prohibited from confirming or denying details of his work for them. Still, there is enough information available to assemble a provisional profile.

By 1999, a 16-year-old Snowden had moved with his family from North Carolina to Maryland. He had dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and become enamored with computers. Snowden spent increasingly large swaths of his time on Ars Technica, a technology news and information website for self-described “alpha geeks.” Soon, he was posting regularly in the site’s public chat rooms under the user name “TheTrueHOOHA.”1 Snowden, it seems, mostly engaged in postadolescent banter about sex and Internet gaming—and occasionally mused about firearms. “I have a Walther P22,” he wrote. “It’s my only gun, but I love it to death.” The Walther P22, a fairly standard handgun, is not especially fearsome, but Snowden’s affection for it hinted at some of his developing affinities.

In May 2004, Snowden enlisted in an Army Special Forces program. He did so, he later told The Guardian, because he felt “an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression.” But he failed to complete the training and was discharged five months later. (He broke both of his legs in a training accident.)

After his discharge, Snowden found work as a security guard for the NSA at its Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland, and, later, as an I.T. security specialist for the CIA. In 2007, he was posted to Geneva. Writing on Ars Technica, he described Switzerland as “pretty cool” but also “horrifically classist.” (He was, however, impressed with the country’s Nigerian immigrants: “Motherfuckers have been there like eight months and speak all three languages.”)

Snowden has traced his political conversion to the Bush years. And by the end of Bush’s second term, Snowden certainly held the president in low esteem. But not, apparently, his intelligence policies. Nor, it seems, was he drawn to insiders who exposed details of these programs. Quite the opposite: Snowden vilified leakers and defended covert intelligence ops. In January 2009, Snowden lambasted The New York Times and its anonymous sources for exposing a secret Bush administration operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Such infuriating breaches had occurred “over and over and over again,” Snowden complained. The Times, he railed, was “like wikileaks” and deserved to go bankrupt; sources who leaked “classified shit” to the Times ought to “be shot in the balls.” When an online interlocutor suggested that it might be “ethical” to report “on the government’s intrigue,” Snowden replied emphatically: “VIOLATING NATIONAL SECURITY? No.” He explained, “that shit is classified for a reason.”

The Ars Technica posts also complicate Snowden’s narrative about Obama. It seems as if he never invested great faith in him. It is true that, during the 2008 election, TheTrueHOOHA compared him favorably to Hillary Clinton, whom he called a “pox.” But in the end, he voted for an unspecified third-party candidate.

And nearly as soon as Obama took office, Snowden developed a deep aversion to the new president. TheTrueHOOHA reacted furiously when Obama named Leon Panetta as his new director of central intelligence. But it was Panetta’s credentials he objected to, not his stance on surveillance matters. “Obama just named a fucking politician to run the CIA,” Snowden erupted. And he became furious about Obama’s domestic policies on a variety of fronts. For example, he was offended by the possibility that the new president would revive a ban on assault weapons. “See, that’s why I’m goddamned glad for the second amendment,” Snowden wrote, in another chat. “Me and all my lunatic, gun-toting NRA compatriots would be on the steps of Congress before the C-Span feed finished.”

At the time the stimulus bill was being debated, Snowden also condemned Obama’s economic policies as part of a deliberate scheme “to devalue the currency absolutely as fast as theoretically possible.” (He favored Ron Paul’s call for the United States to return to the gold standard.) The social dislocations of the financial collapse bothered him not at all. “Almost everyone was self-employed prior to 1900,” he asserted. “Why is 12% employment [sic] so terrifying?” In another chat-room exchange, Snowden debated the merits of Social Security:

<TheTrueHOOHA> save money? cut this social security bullshit

<User 11> hahahayes

<User 18> Yeah! Fuck old people!

<User 11> social security is bullshit

<User 11> let’s just toss old people out in the street

<User 18> Old people could move in with [User11].

<User 11> NOOO

<User 11> they smell funny

<TheTrueHOOHA> Somehow, our society managed to make it hundreds of years without social security just fine

<TheTrueHOOHA> you fucking retards

<TheTrueHOOHA> Magically the world changed after the new deal, and old people became made of glass.

Later in the same session, Snowden wrote that the elderly “wouldn’t be fucking helpless if you weren’t sending them fucking checks to sit on their ass and lay in hospitals all day.”

Snowden’s disgruntlement with Obama, in other words, was fueled by a deep disdain for progressive policies. The available postings by TheTrueHOOHA do show concerns about society’s “unquestioning obedience to spooky types,” but those date to 2010. Contrary to his claims, he seems to have become an anti-secrecy activist only after the White House was won by a liberal Democrat who, in most ways, represented everything that a right-wing Ron Paul admirer would have detested.

After Snowden revealed himself as the NSA leaker, Ars Technica editor Joe Mullin published an in-depth investigation of his Ars Technica postings, which concluded, “The Snowden seen in these chats is not the man we see today.” Mullin was referring to Snowden’s views about leaking government secrets, and to that extent, he was certainly correct. However, there is no reason to doubt that, when Snowden stole the files from the NSA, he still held many of the same views that he expressed as TheTrueHOOHA. Snowden’s politics seemed to still be libertarian-right: He sent Ron Paul two contributions of $250 during the 2012 presidential primaries.

Other evidence challenges Snowden’s trustworthiness. Snowden implied that, despite his lack of formal education, he had won posts of considerable authority within the NSA, due to his advanced skills as a programmer. But as Reuters has reported, Snowden gained access to mountains of classified material through more prosaic means: obtaining log-ins and passwords from a small number of highly trained co-workers, some of whom have since been fired from their posts. One of Reuters’s sources suggested that Snowden acquired the log-ins by telling his colleagues that he needed them “to do his job as a computer systems administrator.”

Reading Snowden’s selection of writings on Ars Technica, it’s hard to see evidence of a savvy—or even consistent—mind at work. Snowden doesn’t seem like a man prepared to become a global spokesman against government surveillance. And the posts certainly don’t indicate a man with a master plan. But over a year ago, he began communicating with Glenn Greenwald, a blogger at The Guardian, who possessed precisely the sophistication about politics and media that Snowden lacked.

In the mid-’90s, Glenn Greenwald was an associate at the prestigious corporate law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, where he had a reputation as a hard-knuckled combatant. But the job bored him—he would later admit to spending hours at work devouring political commentary on the Web.

Greenwald had the background of a conventional liberal. Raised in modest circumstances in South Florida, his first role model was his paternal grandfather, a local city councilman with a socialist bent. At New York University Law School, he was an outspoken advocate for gay rights. Yet in his online travels, he gravitated to right-wing sites such as Townhall, where he could engage in cyber-brawls with social conservatives. Over time, he met some of his antagonists in the flesh and, to his surprise, liked them.

By 1996, Greenwald had co-founded his own litigation firm, where he would spend the next decade. The firm did well, although by Greenwald’s own admission, many of the cases he worked were “shitty.” It was in his pro bono work that Greenwald discovered his true passion: defending the civil liberties of extremists.

In several cases over a five-year span, Greenwald represented Matthew Hale, the head of the Illinois-based white-supremacist World Church of the Creator, which attracted a small core of violently inclined adherents. In one case, Greenwald defended Hale against charges that he had solicited the murder of a federal judge. Hale was eventually convicted when the federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, produced the FBI informant with whom Hale had arranged the killing. Greenwald’s other clients included the neo-Nazi National Alliance, who were implicated in an especially horrible crime. Two white supremacists on Long Island had picked up a pair of unsuspecting Mexican day laborers, lured them into an abandoned warehouse, and then clubbed them with a crowbar and stabbed them repeatedly. The day laborers managed to escape, and when they recovered from their injuries, they sued the National Alliance and other hate groups, alleging that they had inspired the attackers. Greenwald described the suit as a dangerous attempt to suppress free speech by making holders of “unconventional” views liable for the actions of others. His use of a euphemism like “unconventional” to describe white nationalists was troubling, but on First Amendment grounds, he had a strong case and he made it successfully.

Greenwald’s pro bono work is not evidence of anything more than a principled lawyer providing hateful people with constitutionally guaranteed counsel. “To me, it’s a heroic attribute to be so committed to a principle that you apply it ... not when it protects people you like, but when it defends and protects people that you hate,” he recently told Rolling Stone. But Greenwald soon grew restless with litigation of any kind.

In 2005, Greenwald wound down his legal practice and launched his own blog, Unclaimed Territory, producing the sort of impassioned political writing that had fascinated him for a decade. His early postings included detailed accounts of the unfolding Valerie Plame affair and unsparing criticism of Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The blog’s chief interests—intelligence policy, civil liberties, media criticism, and national security—were largely the same as Greenwald’s today. So was its style: several lengthy, deeply informed postings a day, pitting the forces of light against the forces of darkness; mixing lawyerly analysis with bellicose hyperbole. Greenwald seemed to take pride in attacking Republicans and Democrats alike; hence, presumably, the title of his blog.

It wasn’t long before Greenwald had acquired a dedicated following. In 2007, he became a regular columnist for Salon, where his slashing attacks on the Bush White House made him very popular on the left. Over the coming years, he would win enthusiastic praise from, among others, Christopher Hayes, Michael Moore, and Rachel Maddow, who dubbed him “the American left’s most fearless political commentator.”

On certain issues, though, his prose was suffused with right-wing conceits and catchphrases. One example was immigration, on which Greenwald then held surprisingly hard-line views. “The parade of evils caused by illegal immigration is widely known,” Greenwald wrote in 2005. The facts, to him, were indisputable: “illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone.” Defending the nativist congressman Tom Tancredo from charges of racism, Greenwald wrote of “unmanageably endless hordes of people [who] pour over the border in numbers far too large to assimilate, and who consequently have no need, motivation or ability to assimilate.” Those hordes, Greenwald wrote, posed a threat to “middle-class suburban voters.”

Greenwald has since reversed his position and renounced the post about the “parade of evils.” (In his characteristically combative way, though, he blamed the recent rediscovery of his immigration writing on “Obama cultists” out to discredit him.) He ascribes that particular outburst to callow ignorance—a rather inadequate defense of remarks made by a seasoned 38-year-old New York lawyer.

By this point, Greenwald had come to reside in a peculiar corner of the political forest, where the far left meets the far right, often but not always under the rubric of libertarianism. He held positions that appealed to either end of the political spectrum, attacking, for example, U.S. foreign policy as a bipartisan projection of empire. Like most of his writings, his critique of America abroad was congenial both to the isolationist paleo-Right and to post–New Left anti-imperialists. His social liberalism struck an individualist chord pleasing to right-wing libertarians as well as left-wing activists. Greenwald began to envisage bringing these groups together—to dissolve the usual lines of political loyalty and unite the anti-imperialists and civil-liberties activists on the left with the paleoconservatives and free-market libertarians on the right—in a popular front against the establishment alliance of mainstream center-left liberals and neoconservatives.

Along those lines, Greenwald found common ground with the upper echelons of right-wing free-market libertarianism. In August 2007, he appeared at the Cato Institute’s headquarters in Washington. “I’m a real admirer of Cato,” Greenwald declared, “and of the work that Cato does and has done for the last six years under the Bush presidency.” He was not only referring to Cato’s criticism of the war on terror. Under Bush, Greenwald explained, “a political realignment” had occurred, one that rendered “traditional ideological disputes” irrelevant. Politics now turned on a fundamental question: “Are you a believer in the constitutional principles on which the country was founded and a believer in the fact that no political leader can exercise vast and unchecked powers?” To this question, Greenwald had a ready answer: “I find myself on the side of the Cato Institute and other defenders of what in the 1990s was viewed as a more right-wing view of limited government power.”

Greenwald had identified a vehicle for a political realignment: the presidential candidacy of the old libertarian warhorse Ron Paul. In November 2007, Greenwald called Paul “as vigilant a defender of America’s constitutional freedoms ... as any national figure in some time.” He acknowledged that “there is at least something in Paul’s worldview for most people to strongly dislike, even hate,” and he described Paul as “an anti-abortion extremist” and “near the far end” of the right’s stance on immigration policy. Still, he believed Paul to be a rare truth-teller, prepared to buck a corrupt bipartisan consensus.

This portrayal required highly selective political reasoning, not to mention a basic ignorance of U.S. history. Paul, a longtime supporter of the John Birch Society, is a quintessential paleoconservative, holding prejudices and instincts that predate the post–World War II conservative movement founded by William F. Buckley Jr. and others. Paleoconservatives, in their hatred of centralized government and consequent isolationism, regard U.S. history as a long series of catastrophes, starting with the defeat of the Confederacy. From the 1940s to the present, paleoconservatism has thrived on the fringes, in an ideological family tree that extends from the America First Committee to the Birch Society to Paul’s political operation.

Savvy about media self-presentation, Paul usually obscures the dark underbelly of this ideological legacy. Since the term “isolationism” has been discredited since the days of America First, Paul calls himself a “non-interventionist.” But there’s an entire archive to confirm Paul’s place in the far-right procession. His newsletters, produced over the years under various titles, disclose a disturbing pattern of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia (proposing the slogan, “Sodomy=Death”), and conspiracy-mongering. (Paul has implausibly denied writing the newsletters that were published under his name.) The newsletter’s racial writings are voluminous: “It is human nature that like attracts like,” read one edition of his newsletter. “But whites are not allowed to express this same human impulse. Except in a de facto sense, there can be no white schools, white clubs, or white neighborhoods. The political system demands white integration, while allowing black segregation.” Paul aims not to curtail the liberal state and the progressive taxation that underwrites it, but to obliterate them: “By the way, when I say cut taxes,” he proclaims, “I don’t mean fiddle with the code. I mean abolish the income tax and the IRS, and replace them with nothing.”

After Paul dropped out of the presidential race in June 2008, Greenwald wrote articles tepidly supporting the Obama campaign, emphasizing the “vitally important” task of defeating John McCain. (Paul had gone on to endorse the racist theocrat Chuck Baldwin of the Constitutional Party.) But he also sought to advance the realignment he had described to Cato. Greenwald appeared in February 2008 as a keynote speaker at Cato’s “Annual Benefactor Summit,” a conference of high-rolling donors in Las Vegas. Later that year, he appeared at a conference sponsored by the right-wing free-market libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation. In 2008, Greenwald joined with the anti-conservative founder Jane Hamsher to back the Accountability Now/Strangebedfellows PAC, with an assist from some of Ron Paul’s fund-raisers.

When bloggers confronted Greenwald about his associations with libertarians, the darling of the netroots and MSNBC left angrily batted the claims away as distortions. He need not have reacted so forcefully. Accused of working for Cato, for example, he might simply have said that he believed in addressing any organization that wanted to hear from him and left it at that. Instead, Greenwald attacked his critics as “McCarthyite” purveyors of “falsehoods, fabrications, and lies.”

In 2010, Greenwald began attacking the Obama administration from the left on a variety of domestic issues, attacking Wall Street corruption, opposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and decrying inequality. Yet even as he insisted on his left liberalism, he remained a steadfast promoter of Ron Paul—“far and away the most anti-war, anti-Surveillance-State, anti-crony-capitalism, and anti-drug-war presidential candidate in either party.” (After Paul’s son, then senatorial candidate Rand Paul, questioned the Civil Rights Act, Greenwald agreed with criticism that the remark was “wacky,” but insisted that the real “crazies” in American politics were mainstream Democrats and Republicans.) In a debate with The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, Greenwald justified how progressives could back Ron Paul over Obama. How his vaunted allies would govern over issues that he professes to hold dear—Social Security, Medicare, economic inequality, gay rights—is a subject he has not addressed.

During his political pilgrimage, Greenwald became consumed: For him, the national security apparatus is not just an important issue; it is the great burning issue of our time. He beholds American liberals, and American liberalism, as no less guilty than the so-called conservatives of the Republican Party for expanding and defending, at all costs, brutal American imperialism abroad and tyrannical surveillance at home. It is hard to imagine any system of intelligence gathering Greenwald would endorse.

In 2010, Greenwald spoke to Julian Assange for a Salon column praising WikiLeaks for its “vital” work. His enthusiasm for Assange’s mission drew him into the world of computer hackers and security leakers—a world where it became possible not simply to criticize the national security state, but to sabotage it.

In May 2010, Julian Assange delivered an address that neatly captured his bizarre historical understanding and the messianic sense of mission that pervades WikiLeaks. Speaking to the Oslo Freedom Forum about state censorship and human rights in the West, Assange declared that the American slogan emblazoned on the gates of Guantánamo—HONOR BOUND TO DEFEND FREEDOM—is a worse “perversion of the truth” than the signs at Nazi concentration camps proclaiming that work makes you free.He went on to offer an eccentric sketch of contemporary history. “The alliance that once existed between liberals and libertarians and the military-industrial complex in opposing Soviet abuses in the cold war is gone,” Assange said. Since 1991, the “natural interests” of the malevolent forces in the world—authority, the intelligence agencies, and the military—had taken over. The task for today’s freedom fighters, he concluded, is to “find secret abusive plans and expose them where they can be opposed before they are implemented.” It is an animating ideology that could only have emerged from Assange’s own singular history.

Born and raised into the 1970s Australian counterculture, Assange’s biological father abandoned the family before he was born. In 1980, his mother, Christine, became involved with Leif Meynell, a member of a new-age cult known as the Family. The couple had a son together, but when the relationship broke down, Christine became fearful that Meynell would seize their child. She took the boys on the run, moving dozens of times during Assange’s teenage years. Along the way, Assange developed an entrenched distrust of authority and a prodigious talent for computer-programming. By the time he was 16, he was becoming a gifted hacker.

Working with two other hackers under the name International Subversives, Assange used the pseudonym Mendax to hack into the systems of various major institutions, including the U.S. Air Force’s 7th Command Group. In 1994, he was charged with 31 counts of hacking and related crimes, which carried the possibility of a ten-year prison term. When the case came to trial the following year, Assange pleaded guilty to 25 of the hacking charges and was only required to pay a small amount in damages. The experience set him on the intellectual path that would lead him to found WikiLeaks.

Assange had never understood the charges against him. The way he saw it, he had neither stolen information nor harmed the sites he accessed; his crime was victimless—if it was a crime at all. While awaiting trial, he read Solzhenitsyn and identified with the doctors and scientists who were thrown into the gulag. As Raffi Khatchadourian observed in a New Yorker profile, Assange came to see “the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution.”

Assange’s manifesto, “Conspiracy as Governance,” completed in 2006, lays out his core philosophy. Authoritarian power, he wrote, was lodged in conspiracies of operatives who, “in collaborative secrecy, work[ed] to the detriment of a population.” In order to destroy that apparatus, Assange reasoned, the defenders of “truth, love, and self-realization” must disrupt the authority’s communication systems and cut off its secret information flows. Stealing and leaking a regime’s secrets were thus vital tactics in the struggle against authoritarian evil. In 2006, Assange launched WikiLeaks to put these ideas into practice.

The site’s early scoops exposed a random mélange of material, including protocols for the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, secret manuals of the Church of Scientology, the actor Wesley Snipes’s tax returns, and a list of contributors to Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman. Then, beginning in February 2010, came the Chelsea Manning leaks of a vast trove of classified documents, many of them concerned with Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the next 18 months, WikiLeaks would release hundreds of thousands of these documents, including the so-called “Iraq War Logs” (until then the largest leak of classified material in the Defense Department’s history) and a quarter of a million unclassified, confidential, and secret U.S. diplomatic cables. Five major news organizations—The New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel—partnered with WikiLeaks to run stories based on the Manning documents. Suddenly, Assange was an international celebrity, and the accolades and awards poured in, including the Sydney Peace Foundation Gold Medal and the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.

And then, just as suddenly, the whirlwind veered off path. In August 2010, two Swedish women leveled accusations of sexual violence against Assange, and prosecutors sought his extradition from the United Kingdom. It was the beginning of a spectacularly weird sequence of events that landed Assange in asylum inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012, where he remains. He and his defenders protested that the entire affair was a set-up; his U.K. lawyer, Mark Stephens, claimed the heroic leaker had been caught in a “honey trap” laid by “dark forces.”

In the wake of the WikiLeaks frenzy, Assange often tried to clarify where he stood politically. His simultaneous embrace of leftist icons such as Noam Chomsky and right-wing libertarians seemed to indicate that he was open to ideas from either end of the political spectrum, so long as they were directed against authoritarianism. Finally, in 2013, Assange proclaimed, “The only hope as far as electoral politics presently ... is the libertarian section of the Republican Party.”

Yet even that declaration was misleading. In practice, Assange has a history of working closely with forces far more radical than the Republican Liberty Caucus. Late in 2012, Assange announced the formation of the WikiLeaks Party in Australia. The party nominated Senate candidates in three states, with Assange running for office in Victoria. (He stumped via Skype from his refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy.) It had been expected that WikiLeaks would ultimately throw its support to the Green Party—especially after the party’s National Council voted in favor of such a move. Instead, WikiLeaks aligned with a collection of far-right parties. One was the nativist Australia First, whose most prominent figure was a former neo-Nazi previously convicted of coordinating a shotgun attack on the home of an Australian representative of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Members of the WikiLeaks Party blamed the flap on an “administrative error”; mass resignations from the party’s leadership followed. Those who quit cited a lack of transparency in the party’s operations, and some pointed to remarks Assange had made blasting a Green Party proposal to reform Australia’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers. For his part, Assange welcomed the walkout, saying that it had eliminated elements that were “holding the party back.” He won 1.24 percent of the vote.

Even more disconcerting was Assange’s expanding relations with official Russia. In October 2010, just before WikiLeaks reached the acme of its influence with the release of the State Department cables, Assange vowed that WikiLeaks would expose the secrets not just of the United States but of all repressive regimes, including that of Russia. In an interview with Izvestia, a formerly state-controlled daily, he explained, “We have [compromising materials] about your government and businessmen.” The same day, Kristinn Hrafnsson of WikiLeaks told a reporter, “Russian readers will learn a lot about their country.”

Unlike the Americans, though, the Russians put WikiLeaks on notice. The day after Hrafnsson’s interview appeared, an anonymous official from Russia’s secret police, the FSB, told the independent Russian news website, “It’s essential to remember that given the will and the relevant orders, [WikiLeaks] can be made inaccessible forever.”

Then, something strange happened: A few days after Assange was arrested on sexual assault charges, Kremlin officials emerged as some of his most vocal defenders. The Moscow Times reported that Vladimir Putin himself had condemned Assange’s arrest: “If it is full democracy, then why have they hidden Mr. Assange in prison? That’s what, democracy?” Putin’s indignation was echoed by other top Russian politicians, including State Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov, who observed, “The real reason for his arrest is to find out by any means who leaked the confidential diplomatic information to him and how.”

Within weeks, contacts commenced between WikiLeaks and elements favorable to Putin’s ruling party. The promised damning documents about Russia never saw the light of day. The Moscow Times article also recounted how the Russian Reporter, a Putin-friendly publication, had gained “privileged access” to “hundreds of [American diplomatic] cables containing Russia-related information.”

These contacts began when, according to The Guardian, Assange made batches of the State Department cables available to Israel Shamir, a Russian-born Israeli journalist who was involved with WikiLeaks. After Shamir took the cables to Moscow, he traveled to Belarus. There, he met aides to the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who was then campaigning in a sham election. (Shamir, a controversial figure within WikiLeaks, has evolved into a vociferous Holocaust denier, obsessed with Jewish power.) Not long after Shamir arrived, according to accounts published by the Index on Censorship and the American online magazine Tablet, local news outlets started reporting that the official media was preparing to publish secret documents about the Belarusian opposition.

On December 19, 2010, Lukashenko declared himself reelected with 80 percent of the vote. His nearest opponent, the respected dissident Andrei Sannikov, carted off to jail, where he has reportedly been tortured. After the election, Shamir wrote a glowing account of Lukashenko’s government in CounterPunch, denouncing the opposition as “the pro-Western ‘Gucci’ crowd.” He also boasted that WikiLeaks had exposed American “agents” in Belarus, according to an account in the New Statesman.

The boasts were ugly but not idle. The next month, a state-run newspaper published what it claimed were excerpts from cables provided by Shamir, which supposedly identified prominent dissidents, including Sannikov, as paid American agents. James Ball, a former WikiLeaks employee who now works for The Guardian, has written that when he and others raised questions about Shamir’s actions, “we were told in no uncertain terms that Assange would not condone criticism of his friend.”

The Belarusian affair coincided with a deepening of Assange’s connections to Putin’s government. Without much public commentary, Assange has acquired something like Russian government media sponsorship. In April 2012, he launched a half-hour political TV show—eventually named “The Julian Assange Show”—on the Kremlin-funded and -controlled RT television network and website. His first guest was the normally furtive Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. At a moment when Assange’s bright light seemed to be fading, the Russians gave him his own outlet on a network whose primary mission is to advance Putin’s political line. (Greenwald has defended Assange’s association with RT, arguing that working for the Russian network is no different from writing for major U.S. outlets such as The Washington Post, NBC, and The Wall Street Journal, all of them supposedly corrupted by their right-wing corporate ownership.) Assange’s connections to Putin’s regime would appear to have something to do with the next chapter in the NSA controversy—how and why Edward Snowden came to seek asylum in Russia.

On May 20, Snowden fled Hawaii with hard drives full of NSA material and arrived in Hong Kong, where he was joined by Greenwald and his associate, the filmmaker and activist Laura Poitras. The day after the pair revealed to the world Snowden’s identity as the NSA “whistle-blower,” Assange praised him as a “hero” from within the Ecuadorian Embassy. In time, Assange would disclose that WikiLeaks was paying for Snowden’s travel and lodgings and providing him with legal counsel. In mid-June, Assange’s confidante, the WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison, arrived in Hong Kong and joined Snowden. From this moment on, Assange and WikiLeaks became central to the Snowden story.

In initial interviews with Greenwald and Poitras, Snowden said he willingly accepted the risk of going to prison and that he wanted to end up in a country with strong protections for privacy rights, possibly Iceland. But the Obama administration indicated that it regarded Snowden as a serious criminal, and before long, it became clear that Snowden’s chief concern was in finding a country that could safely get him out of Hong Kong, no matter how despicable its own record on privacy rights.

On June 21, according to a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Snowden took up residence at the Russian consulate in Hong Kong. Two days later, he and Harrison boarded an Aeroflot flight for Moscow. Reports vary about who exactly steered Snowden to the Russians. But WikiLeaks has claimed the credit, tweeting that it had helped to arrange for Snowden to gain “political asylum in a democratic country.” Izvestia divulged that the Kremlin and its intelligence services, in collaboration with WikiLeaks, had completed Snowden’s escape.

Within days of Snowden’s arrival in Sheremetyevo airport, powerful Russians expressed interest in having him work with the Putin government. Senator Ruslan Gattarov, a Putin ally, offered to hire Snowden as a consultant for a Duma working group that would investigate whether U.S. Internet firms gave information about Russians to Washington. Kirill Kabanov, a member of Putin’s so-called Human Rights Council, called for the Kremlin to grant Snowden political asylum; Putin had offered to consider such a request soon after news broke about Snowden’s thefts.

On July 12, having been holed up at the airport for three weeks, Snowden held an event widely described as a press conference to announce that he would be seeking temporary asylum. He spoke not before the hundreds of journalists who had flocked to the airport, but before a carefully selected group of invitees that included “pro-Kremlin figures in the guise of civic activists,” according to a posting on The New Yorker website by Russia expert Masha Lipman. Also in attendance was Anatoly Kucherena, a prominent attorney who serves on the pro-Kremlin Public Chamber and the body appointed to oversee the FSB, and who has since become Snowden’s lawyer and sole spokesman to the world.

In his statement Snowden praised the international resistance to “historically disproportionate aggression,” by which he meant the U.S. attempts to bring him to justice. “Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world.” No credible public figure has praised Russia’s increasingly vile record on civil liberties for many years. For Snowden and for WikiLeaks, it appears, what really counts in the field of human rights is a willingness to protect Edward Snowden.

The payoff of the Snowden affair for Putin and the Russians thus far has been substantial. Just as the Kremlin’s human rights reputation, already woeful under Putin, has spiraled downward, it is able to swoop in to rescue an American political outlaw, supposedly persecuted by the Obama administration. The dissident journalist Masha Gessen has observed, “The Russian propaganda machine has not gotten this much mileage out of a U.S. citizen since Angela Davis’s murder trial in 1971.”

More than that, the Russians have used Snowden to embarrass the United States with one very specific complaint. The Putin regime has long hated the central role that the United States plays in setting the rules of the Internet through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and wanted to assert maximum control over the Internet within its own borders. With Snowden, it had scored the ultimate data point in its case—the crucial evidence that the United States was manipulating the Internet for its own nefarious means. “We need to quickly put these huge transnational companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook under national controls,” Gattarov told an interviewer. “This is the lesson Snowden taught us.”

Some of the documents stolen by Edward Snowden have revealed worrisome excesses on the part of the NSA. Any responsible whistle-blower, finding evidence of these excesses, might, if thwarted by her or his superiors, bring the evidence of those specific abuses to the attention of the press, causing a scandal, which would prod Congress and the NSA itself to correct or eliminate the offensive program.

The leakers and their supporters, however, see things very differently. To them, national security is not a branch of the government; it is the government, or it is tantamount to being the government: a sinister, power-mad authority. As Greenwald has argued: “The objective of the NSA and the U.S. government is nothing less than destroying all remnants of privacy. They want to make sure that every single time human beings interact with one another, things that we say to one another, things we do with one another, places we go, the behavior in which we engage, that they know about it.” It is impossible, therefore, to reform this clandestine Leviathan from the inside. And so the leakers are aiming at de-legitimating and, if possible, destroying something much larger than a set of NSA programs. They have unleashed a torrent of classified information with the clear intent of showing that the federal government has spun out of control, thereby destroying the public’s faith in their government’s capacity to spy aggressively on our enemies while also protecting the privacy of its citizens. They want to spin the meaning of the documents they have released to confirm their animating belief that the United States is an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions.

According to the leakers’ own evidence, however, this interpretation is simply not the case. The files leaked so far strongly indicate that the U.S. intelligence system, although in need of major reform, is not recklessly spying on its citizens. The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies found serious problems with the NSA’s data collection, and recommended, among other restrictions, outlawing the NSA’s practice of amassing and storing the phone records of virtually all Americans. Yet it also showed persuasively that the NSA has acted far more responsibly than the claims made by the leakers and publicized by the press.

There are many examples of such sensationalism. Early on in the affair, for example, Snowden’s most spectacular charge was that, at his desk, without a warrant, he could eavesdrop on anyone “even the president, if I had a personal email.” Several weeks later, Greenwald, writing in The Guardian, revealed a document that purportedly substantiated that claim—“training materials” for a supposedly “top secret” program called xKeyscore, described in the document as the NSA’s “ ‘widest-reaching’ system for developing intelligence from the internet.” The gist of Greenwald’s article was widely reprinted in the American press.

Inspected carefully, however, the documents are plainly not “training materials.” Instead, they are more likely the PowerPoint version of a puffed-up marketing brochure, possibly or even probably from an outside contractor trying to sell the program to the NSA. The title slide dates from January 2007, which means that they predate important legislation passed in August 2007 and July 2008 that sharply checked the NSA. And the slides say absolutely nothing about giving users the power to read e-mails, with or without a warrant. Greenwald’s article does cite another set of xKeyscore materials which dates from 2012, and which might well prove that the article’s claims and Snowden’s statement were accurate and truthful. But Greenwald and The Guardian have not made those materials public, and when the defense writer Joshua Foust, who pointed out many of these criticisms, subsequently questioned them about the documents, Guardian editors replied that they had no intention of releasing them. The champions of “transparency” have been remarkably opaque when they choose to be.

A similar pattern recurs with other supposedly damning documents. Among those cited by The New York Times, in its editorial supporting clemency for Snowden, is one that purportedly proves “the N.S.A. broke federal privacy laws, or exceeded its authority, thousands of times per year, according to the agency’s own internal auditor.” But the Times was drawing on a Washington Post report that failed to say whether the “thousands” of violations amounted to a significant proportion of the total uses of the database, or only a relative handful, within the margin for human error. The Timesalso failed to emphasize that, according to the document, the vast majority those violations, as audited in the first quarter of 2012, were due to simple human or mechanical error and that there was no way of knowing whether the balance involved serious, as opposed to technical, violations of law. The findings, finally, came from an internal audit by the NSA—an indication that the NSA takes steps to police itself.

The leakers have gone far beyond justifiably blowing the whistle on abusive programs. In addition to their alarmism about domestic surveillance, many of the Snowden documents released thus far have had nothing whatsoever to do with domestic surveillance. As Fred Kaplan has pointed out in Slate, Snowden has exposed NSA operations to track the Taliban in Pakistan, monitor e-mails for intelligence of developments in Iran, and more surveillance abroad. These operations, Kaplan notes, were neither illegal, improper, or, in the context of contemporary global affairs, immoral. Regardless of whether any of these documents in any way compromised U.S. interests abroad, they were plainly not the revelations of “whistle-blowers” seeking to secure Americans’ constitutional rights. They are the revelations of leakers, out to damage their bugaboo national security behemoth.

Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange have largely set the terms in the debate over transparency and privacy in America. But the value of some of their revelations does not mean that they deserve the prestige and influence that has been accorded to them. The leakers and their supporters would never hand the state modern surveillance powers, even if they came wrapped in all sorts of rules and regulations that would constrain their abuse. They are right to worry, but wrong—even paranoid—to distrust democratic governments in this way. Surveillance and secrecy will never be attractive features of a democratic government, but they are not inimical to it, either. This the leakers will never understand.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University.

  1. Ars Technica has released a small selection of his postings. While there’s no absolute proof that TheTrueHOOHA and Snowden are one and the same, overwhelming evidence suggests they are. Snowden used the same screen name on other sites and every aspect of TheTrueHOOHA’s biography lines up with Snowden’s. The New York Times and Reuters both attribute TheTrueHOOHA’s writings to Snowden.

Correction: This story originally identified Joe Mullin as a high tech and legal expert. In fact, Joe Mullin is a journalist and editor at Ars Technica. We regret the error.