Julian Assange did something like this too. It’s the intel thief’s version of a doomsday machine.

From what I can tell from Twitter, Snowden’s fans think he’s morally justified in doing basically anything he has to in order to stay out of the feds’ clutches, whether it be handing propaganda windfalls to Russia and China by seeking refuge there or threatening to spill a gigantic treasure trove of sensitive information. Maybe they’ll draw the line if/when we find out he paid off his protectors with intelligence — as Greenwald now admits Snowden did to a small degree in revealing the IP addresses of Chinese computers hacked by the NSA — but I doubt it. This is why it gets stupider by the day to say that the story of his escape is merely a distraction from the far more important story of U.S. surveillance capabilities. How is it “distracting” to know there’s a guy running around in China and Russia with huge stores of state secrets, essentially blackmailing the government to let him leak selectively with impunity or else he’ll leak indiscriminately? On what planet is that a non-story?

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian Newspaper journalist Snowden first contacted in February, told the Daily Beast Tuesday that Snowden “has taken extreme precautions to make sure many different people around the world have these archives to insure the stories will inevitably be published.” Greenwald added that the people in possession of these files “cannot access them yet because they are highly encrypted and they do not have the passwords.” But, Greenwald said, “if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden, he told me he has arranged for them to get access to the full archives.”…

Greenwald however said that in his dealings with Snowden, the 30-year-old systems administrator was adamant that he and his newspaper go through the document and only publish what served the public’s right to know. “Snowden himself was vehement from the start that we do engage in that journalistic process and we not gratuitously publish things,” Greenwald said. “I do know he was vehement about that, he was not trying to harm the U.S. Government, he was trying to shine light on it.”

Greenwald said Snowden for example did [not] wish to publicize information that gave the technical specifications or blueprints for how the NSA constructed its eavesdropping network. “He is worried that would enable other states to enhance their security systems and monitor their own citizens.” Greenwald also said Snowden did not wish to repeat the kinds of disclosures made famous a generation ago by former CIA spy, Philip Agee—who published information after defecting to Cuba that outed undercover CIA officers. “He was very insistent he does not want to publish documents to harm individuals or blow anyone’s undercover status,” Greenwald said. He added that Snowden told him, “Leaking CIA documents can actually harm people, whereas leaking NSA documents can harm systems.”

Greenwald also said his newspaper had no plans to publish the technical specifications of NSA systems. “I do not want to help other states get better at surveillance,” Greenwald said. He added, “[w]e won’t publish things that might ruin ongoing operations from the U.S. government that very few people would object to the United States doing.”

Greenwald’s suggesting, in other words, that even the doomsday files have been vetted by Snowden to eliminate stuff that might endanger people in the field or give oppressive regimes pointers on how to get better surveillance. But that makes no sense: If the doomsday files only have the sort of stuff on it that Snowden was going to let the Guardian publish anyway, then chances are it’ll all come out in due time no matter what happens. The doomsday file gives the feds an incentive to let him go only if there’s even more damaging material on there than is known to the journos Snowden’s been working with. And of course that’s really no incentive at all, because the feds aren’t about to let themselves be blackmailed publicly like this. They’re going to go after him, now more than ever, for fear of encouraging other blackmailers.

As for the point that all of this stuff has been carefully vetted, Snowden’s critics toss around the word “narcissistic” usually without explaining what they mean, but this is a fine example of it. He seems to believe he’s reached a degree of omniscience where he can pick and choose what to leak with confidence that it won’t put people at risk, won’t injure the American public’s interest in its own national security, and won’t give rogue regimes critical information on how to improve surveillance. Why he thinks this, I have no idea. Whatever he has and however long he’s sifted through it, he can’t see the entire chessboard, especially on the enemy’s side of the board. To take a minor example, the stuff he leaked about the NSA spying on Medvedev at the G20 a few years ago noted that the U.S. thought it had discovered a change in the way the Russians were transmitting their leadership signals. Did Russia realize that before the Guardian’s story was published a few weeks ago? Probably. Maybe not. Who knows? Does Snowden? And if that’s the sort of thing he’s willing to leak to a paper, what’s in the doomsday files that he doesn’t feel comfortable sharing with journalists (yet)? It’s amazing to me that he feels he can tell what’s truly damaging and what isn’t, and that he thinks he can keep this information secret at his whim from intelligence services all over the world. Frankly, knowing now about the doomsday files, don’t enemies like Russia and China have an extra incentive to disappear him? If anything happens to him, Snowden’s defenders will assume that it was U.S. intel that did it; presumably that’ll trigger the doomsday files, and that’ll give Russia, China, and everyone else access to whatever’s in Snowden’s secret stash. I’m not sure, in other words, that the doomsday stuff doesn’t jeopardize his safety more than it protects it.

It’s hard to recall now, but this clusterfark began ostensibly because Snowden’s conscience could no longer tolerate infringements on Americans’ civil liberties by the U.S. government. Are we to believe, then, that everything in the doomsday files is related to that narrow subject too? If it is, then why is he holding it back? Release it and help the civil libertarian cause before it’s too late. If it isn’t, then why did he take it in the first place and why is he threatening to release it now? We seem to be paying an increasingly steep price in blows to national security for what we’ve learned about data-mining.

Exit question for techies: How would you arrange to send a password to unlock encrypted files if you’re working alone? In Assange’s case, the suspicion was that one of his colleagues at Wikileaks would publish the password if he suddenly disappeared. Snowden, supposedly, is a lone wolf so he needs a way to do this automatically. I imagine you could rig it so that your computer, or whatever system you’re using, asks you periodically if it should refrain from sending the password out, and if you fail to respond then it follows through. Or, I suppose, one of the journalists Snowden’s working with could do it for him. That’d be an interesting twist on journalistic ethics, but rest assured, his fans will defend it.