I have maintained a certain agnosticism about Edward Snowden’s relationship with the Russian intelligence services up until now. I noted with interest, but unconvinced, statements by congressional intelligence committee leaders that suggested he was a spy. And I questioned Edward Lucas’s conclusion that Snowden was at least a passive, unknowing dupe of the FSB.
Snowden’s appearance on Russian television yesterday in a highly-scripted propaganda stunt for Vladimir Putin does not settle the question of whether he was originally an FSB tool. But it sure does settle the question—at least in my mind—of his role now.
I’m not sure why this grotesque display does not move Snowden’s many admirers. Perhaps people may rationalize what he did and say that he’s posing the same question to the Russian leader about which he forced a debate in this country—and that he is thus being consistent. But they can’t actually believe that. These are sophisticated people, after all, many of whom are journalists. They must know the difference between a scripted set-piece appearance with an authoritarian strong man on state-controlled television and asking the tough questions in the context of democratic dialogue. They must know that Snowden either played that role willingly or was, in one way or another, encouraged to do so by authorities who have enormous leverage and control over him. They must know, in other words, that at this point at least, Snowden—by his own volition or against his will—is very clearly working for the Russians.
Having said that, let me now make clear that I do not believe this fact should influence overmuch the way we read the material Snowden has disclosed. The authenticity of the documents in question is not disputed. Those documents reveal programs, some of which raise significant public policy concerns, and we need to discuss those, whoever Edward Snowden may be.
But I do think we should regard the subplot here of who Edward Snowden really is—a subplot that has been an important discussion in its own right over the last year—very differently in light of yesterday’s appearance. We should stop thinking of Snowden, to the extent that we ever were, as a hero. We should stop thinking of him as a whistleblower. We should think of him, rather, as a man who has actively thrown his lot in with Vladimir Putin even as the latter is working to dismember Ukraine, and who helps a dictator make propaganda videos designed to embarrass his country. As Stephen Stromberg puts it in the Washington Post, even while defending some of Snowden’s disclosure:
Snowden surrendered any remaining shred of dignity on Thursday. If he had any choice in the matter, he should have declined to appear. If he did not have a choice, he should have surrendered to the U.S. embassy before humiliating himself. If he could not do even that, he should have protested when it was his turn to play his part. Instead, he revealed his bankruptcy of principle.
UPDATE [10:55 a.m.]: I have learned that The Guardian today ran an op-ed by Snowden, in which the latter described how he “questioned Russia’s involvement in mass surveillance on live television.” I had not seen Snowden’s piece before writing my own—but the piece does not alter the views I express above. At any rate, Snowden’s article opens:
On Thursday, I questioned Russia’s involvement in mass surveillance on live television. I asked Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, a question that cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program: “Does [your country] intercept, analyse or store millions of individuals’ communications?”
I went on to challenge whether, even if such a mass surveillance program were effective and technically legal, it could ever be morally justified.
The question was intended to mirror the now infamous exchange in US Senate intelligence committee hearings between senator Ron Wyden and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, about whether the NSA collected records on millions of Americans, and to invite either an important concession or a clear evasion. (See a side-by-side comparison of Wyden’s question and mine here.)
This essay was cross-posted at Lawfare. Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.