A 29-year-old IT contractor named Edward Snowden turned out to be the source of last week’s wealth of revelations about the National Security Agency’s digital spying on Americans and foreign nationals. In a substantial interview with the Guardian, he says while he never intended to remain anonymous, the story shouldn’t be about him, but rather about what the US government is doing to its citizens in their own name.
Snowden’s desire to try to keep the story on the machinery of espionage is pretty adorable, all things considered. To butcher a Trotsky quote, he may not be interested in the spotlight, but the spotlight is suddenly very, very interested in him. After all, we know what happens to people who disrupt the official narratives that Washington prefers to spread. Snowden should get ready for some very powerful people to put his life under a very powerful microscope. And that’s assuming he doesn’t end up with a hood over his head in a plane headed back to the US, or worse.
His family, of course, is now “fair game,” as Valerie Plame was once described. People who might have comforted themselves with the idea that only Republicans will attack and smear critics of the government should pay close attention for the next little while.
One of the things that comes through in Snowden’s interview with the Guardian is that he is a careful, careful person. Snowden distinguishes himself from Bradley Manning, saying that unlike Manning’s massive document-dump to Wikileaks, he carefully evaluated the documents he leaked to prevent harm to any particular individuals. If nothing else, the self-described radicals and their fellow-travelers who are likely to raise Snowden up as an icon of their cause should probably think on this for at least a second and realize that he very probably isn’t one of them.
According to his interview, Snowden was in fact, a loyal servant of the security state, starting with his desire to serve in Iraq during that war, an attempt to join the US Army’s elite special forces, and years of service with the CIA before working as a contractor for the NSA. He gives us no reason to believe he’s a radical at all, except for his belief that pervasive surveillance is toxic to democracies.
So of course, like all great American believers in the protections of their constitution, he’s now hiding in a jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China. I happen to be writing this from a hotel lobby in Boston, a short walk from the site of the Boston Massacre and the first reading in this town of the Declaration of Independence. There are days when this country’s capacity to introduce irony into the universe is too much, even for me.