First, let’s get the latest breaking news on Edward Snowden’s location. After a long period of speculation after his disappearance from Hong Kong, Russian president Vladimir Putin has finally confirmed that he’s in the transit zone of the Moscow airport:
BREAKING: Putin: Snowden is in transit zone of Moscow airport, Russia will not extradite him.
— The Associated Press (@AP) June 25, 2013
Edward Snowden is a free man, and the sooner he chooses a destination the better: Russia's Putin #breaking
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) June 25, 2013
#Breaking: Russian President Putin confirms Edward Snowden on transit side of Moscow airport, arrival was a surprise
— ABC News (@ABC) June 25, 2013
Gabriel Malor, David Freddoso, and I debated about Sergei Lavrov’s contention earlier today that Snowden hadn’t entered Russia and so they couldn’t extradite him. This confirmed my analysis of that very careful parsing. Officially, one does not enter a country until presenting a passport and going through some sort of border control, which is why the areas in airports for transitional layovers are considered a kind of legal limbo for travelers.
That gets us into the question — again — of whether this generation’s real-life Carmen Sandiego is an American hero or traitor. My colleague at The Week, Paul Brandus, says he could be both:
Here’s an irony that Snowden might be unaware of: For a man who howls about violation of civil liberties in America, he’d be dependent, in Ecuador, on a government that just passed a law that locals say will muzzle free speech. Among other things, notes the Miami Herald, it “makes the publication of private communications — WikiLeaks’ bread and butter — illegal.”
But is Snowden a hero or a traitor? He’s a hero for exposing deep government lies about its abuse of our civil liberties. This is, of course, a very serious matter needing further exploration. But Snowden is also a traitor. That’s an issue that has broad bipartisan consensus in Washington, where large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats want Snowden punished — if he is ever caught. The citizenry agrees: A USA Today/Pew survey says by a 54 percent to 38 percent margin, Americans want him prosecuted.
What would you call a man who deliberately passed information to a rival nation? According to the South China Morning Post, Snowden served up on a silver platter details about U.S. espionage efforts in China, including hacking of Chinese mobile phone companies and targeting elites at that country’s top Tsinghua University. He may be a hero in the eyes of civil libertarians, but he has also turned around and placed those very citizens in potential jeopardy by passing secrets to China, and, perhaps Russia. Snowden originally tried to portray himself as a lonely hero speaking truth to power. He now comes off as a smug, narcissistic Benedict Arnold.
Yesterday, a debate erupted as to whether Snowden’s motives mattered at all anyway. I argue in my column today that they very much do, especially since we are having to rely on his credibility to determine whether the accusations against the NSA and GCHQ are true:
Unlike Felt or Plame and her husband Joe Wilson, Snowden had no significant power within government. Glenn Greenwald at theGuardian, who worked the closest with Snowden over the last few months, argues that Snowden is motivated by outrage over abuses of power; Snowden’s detractors argue that he either hates the U.S. or has a narcissistic desire for glory. Either way, Snowden had similar channels to choose as Felt did, which was to either contact law enforcement or members of Congress about those abuses, at least before exposing highly classified material to the public.
Why did he not avail himself of those channels? Here, too, actions arguably speak to motivation. Snowden fled to Hong Kong, then Russia, and apparently has started to bargain with Ecuador for asylum — and may need to travel through Cuba and Venezuela. None of these nations are known for a deep commitment to free speech and investigative media. Ecuador, in fact, has prosecuted journalists for reporting on the authoritarian government’s activities, and has imposed a panel to regulate media content — presumably in favor of President Rafael Correa.
It’s entirely possible that Snowden’s information accurately describes abuses of power, even if he’s not the free-speech hero or liberty martyr that his supporters claim. In part, we can now judge that because Snowden did what Felt refused to do for decades, which is reveal himself as the leaker. For the most part, though, we are left with only fragments of evidence to support Snowden’s public conclusions about the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ signals-intelligence group. Until we get a robust investigation into the activities of both by the respective legislatures that are supposed to oversee those activities, we can’t reach any real conclusions. That’s why motive matters in leaks, as well as context.
This debate will continue until we get a lot more answers about these programs, and we need to continue to demand those answers regardless of how we regard Snowden.