My Visit With Edward Snowden
Last week I traveled to Russia with three other Americans to present former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden with the annual Sam Adams Associates Award for Integrity in Intelligence. Ray McGovern (retired CIA analyst), Thomas Drake (former NSA senior executive and whistleblower), Coleen Rowley (retired FBI agent and whistleblower), and I felt it especially important that Snowden receive this award from Americans who served the government in the national security and intelligence fields. Being the first Americans to see Snowden since he left Hong Kong, we all had serious concerns about our trip—not about getting into Russia, but about getting back into our own country. We left Washington, DC, having a lawyer on retainer and no electronics—cell phones, laptops or any of today’s normal lifelines—knowing that the United States could geo-locate our whereabouts and find Snowden, and also knowing we could have our devices searched and confiscated upon our return.
The Sam Adams Integrity Award is named for a CIA analyst who discovered in 1967 that there were more than a half-million Vietnamese Communists under arms—roughly twice the number that the US command in Saigon would admit to, lest Americans learn that claims of “progress” were bogus. Adams continued to press for honesty and accountability but stayed “inside channels”—and failed. He died at 55 of a heart attack, nagged by the thought that, had he not let himself be diddled, many lives might have been saved. We believe that Snowden exemplifies Sam Adams’s courage, persistence and devotion to truth—no matter what the consequences. We wanted Snowden to know that, as opposed to the daily vitriol from the US government and mainstream media, 60 percent of the United States supports him, including thousands in the national security and intelligence agencies where we used to work.
The first thing I’m universally asked is how Edward Snowden is doing. Given the extraordinary circumstances and pressure he’s under, Snowden is doing remarkably well. He’s warm and engaged, greeting us with long embraces. His is well-grounded, centered, and has a quick sense of humor, darkly joking that if he were a spy, Russia treats its spies much better than leaving them trapped in the Sheremetyevo transit zone for over a month. He is brilliant, humble and idealistic—in the best sense of the word. It is the sort of idealism that allows someone to undertake such a magnificent act of civil disobedience. It’s an idealism that believes the democracy he once knew can be reined in from the surveillance state it has become, if only the public knew what was going on. And it is this idealism that prevented him from contemplating being rendered effectively stateless by the country he risked his life to help, even if he did understand that he would be accused of espionage and could face life in jail.
Snowden’s exile has fueled a universal, obsessive fixation on where he is and who is protecting him—rather than looking at why he is in hiding and why he needs sanctuary. The answer to his whereabouts is simple: I don’t know, and even if I did, I would not compromise his safety. “Finding Snowden” belies his actual status. He is an “asylee,” not a “fugitive,” as the mainstream media in America describe him routinely—even some of the trusted journalists who write exclusives based on his revelations. An asylee has the right to be left alone, not hunted like an animal. But similar to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Snowden is in a new purgatory the US has created: free but not free. Snowden is technically free, but still circumscribed by the specter of his home country, which refuses to recognize Russia’s grant of political asylum under international law and human rights agreements.
As for who is providing for his security—WikiLeaks? FSB?—this question is borne not out of a concern for his safety, but rather a US desire to perpetuate a false narrative that Snowden is being controlled by the Russians. I can say with certainty: Edward Snowden is not being controlled by the Russians, or anyone for that matter. He is fiercely independent and makes his own decisions, leaving him perplexed and understandably frustrated by the continuous insinuations that he is giving the Russians information. He ticks off abundant evidence to the contrary. First, he points out, he didn’t destroy his life to become a Russian asset. Second, he’s in Russia only because of the United States, which revoked his passport while he was en route to Latin America. Third, WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison has been by his side the whole time, in part to bear witness to the fact that he is not engaged in spying activity. Fourth, it is obvious that he chose to give information about NSA’s secret dragnet surveillance to the US people, not foreign adversaries. Fifth, and perhaps most significantly considering the contrary narrative promulgated in the United States, he has not had access to the information he revealed since he left Hong Kong. Here, rational logic fails and cognitive dissonance clouds him from seeing that the spy allegation is just a more incendiary version of the routine smears always leveled against whistleblowers. For why would your country crucify you when you’re trying to keep it on the right path?
The issue of his security is paramount. Russia granted him asylum and clearly has an interest in protecting its refugee. Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the United States would not torture him if he returned, hardly a salutary promise. Senator Dianne Feinstein accused him of treason—an act punishable by death. And last week, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden and House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers joked about putting Snowden on the “kill list” for assassination. The audience laughed. No one protested that this was wildly unprofessional, inappropriate and profoundly disturbing. When we raised this exchange with Snowden, he had heard the veiled threat and shook his head at how such a notion could be both equally absurd and realistic. He also noted how hypocritical it is that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper can blatantly lie to Congress, under oath and on camera, and not be charged with perjury, while the government pursues him with an unhinged Javert zeal and charges him with espionage for telling the truth.
Snowden follows the news closely and is pleased with reform-minded reactions to his revelations, both in America and abroad. His observation at dinner that the “government needs to have a trust relationship with the public,” stood out in my mind, for its simple obviousness and seeming impossibility. His words often echoed those expressed in his testimony to the European Parliament, which I delivered a few weeks earlier, about how public debate is not possible without public knowledge. While he’s gratified that Congress is finally engaging in reform, he worries that it will focus too much on the Patriot Act. I was astounded that a brilliant technologist would have such a keen legal acumen and be so well-versed in the weedy legalese of surveillance law. “One of my big issues so far is that most of the [reform] bills address section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is never going to survive. It’s indefensible,” he observed. “702 [of the FISA Amendments Act] is the real dragon because it’s the heart of the FAA, which institutionalizes warrantless surveillance.”
We did not discuss particular news articles or revelations. But I was struck by something I’ve always applauded about Julian Assange. Despite whatever peril he was in, Assange always mentioned concern for whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning, Drake, William Binney and John Kiriakou, many of them my clients who were facing espionage charges. They were grateful, as was I, for those words of support in these very lonely battles. Similarly, Snowden—the most wanted man on the planet—worried more about the criminal threats against others so pivotal in his journey: WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and especially WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison who has been his shepherd, friend, protector and constant companion since Hong Kong.
Snowden is an individual who was willing to give up his six-figure salary, comfortable life, family and friends to try to rescue the United States from itself. He made the biggest whistleblower disclosures in the history of the world and asked for nothing in return. Nonetheless, like many whistleblowers facing retaliation, Snowden has been branded a “narcissist.” Those whose lies and lawbreaking Snowden exposed are eager to see Snowden smeared and contained because it helps them cover up their wrongdoing. Those who stayed silent while government officials misled the public and abandoned the Constitution are willing to listen to the smears because it helps them rationalize their silence. We believe that Snowden exemplifies Sam Adams’s courage, persistence and devotion to truth—no matter what the consequences. We wanted him to know that, as opposed to the daily invective of the US government and a vocal few surveillance state apologists, 60 percent of the United States supports him.