After quietly disappearing into Russia last August, NSA leaker Edward Snowden is slowly making his way back to the international stage.
First, there was an interview with The Washington Post and a recorded message to the British people last Christmas. Then, on Tuesday, The New Yorker published a lengthy interview with Snowden. Today, he’s set to interact with the public for the first time since Russia granted him asylum in a Q&A hosted by the Courage Foundation, a group that raises money for the defense of people who leak to journalists.
With today’s chat, Snowden is taking a page out of Julian Assange’s PR playbook. The Wikileaks founder took the same steps out of the cold in 2010 after releasing hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables. It also gets Snowden back in the media spotlight as the eyes of the world turn to Russia for the 2014 Olympic Games.
The impact that Snowden’s actions have had on the debate over NSA surveillance are impossible to ignore. He’s raised the public’s awareness of U.S. snooping and has forced President Obama to make modest reforms to how the NSA collects information.
But the jury is still out on Snowden as a person. There is now evidence to back the three clear public perceptions of the young computer specialist. Only time will tell which of these identities is the true Snowden.
Spy/Traitor – Some members of the House have doubled down on the claim that Snowden is a spy working for the Russian government. Last Sunday, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) said that a classified Pentagon report on the leaks contains evidence that Snowden received help from the modern-day equivalent of the KGB.
“There’s a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow,” Rogers said.
The Michigan Republican has been leading a campaign against Snowden since the leaks began last year, and offered no evidence. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a much more measured politician, refused to rule out the possibility that Snowden is working with the Russians.
“He may well have,” Feinstein said on “Meet the Press” last Sunday. “We don’t know at this stage.”
Snowden, in The New Yorker video, dismissed these accusations.
“This ‘Russian spy’ push is absurd,” he said. “It won’t stick…. Because it’s clearly false, and the American people are smarter than politicians think they are.”
Snowden’s path to Moscow and actions since also raise questions about his allegiances. He first went to Hong Kong - part of China, a country engaged in cyber warfare with the U.S. - and offered up secrets in exchange for asylum. When China refused, he went to Russia - another U.S. cyber rival, which eventually gave him asylum for a year. While there, he has offered Brazil access to documents in exchange for asylum.
Whistleblower - There are those who see Snowden’s action in a completely different light. His defenders say he has done the world an important service by exposing the vast American surveillance network. He’s won numerous awards from privacy groups. Even some within the American political establishment, including former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, have called for leniency toward Snowden.
“If Edward Snowden is a criminal, then so are a lot of people that are working within the CIA and the NSA who have been spying illegally on American citizens. They ought to grant Snowden clemency,” he said.
Someone in Over His Head - For all of Snowden’s technical capabilities, he’s shown a remarkable naiveté in international affairs. The countries he chose for asylum - Russia and China - have horrible human rights records. In the run-up to the Olympics, Russia has been practically transformed into a police state. Snowden also seems puzzled as to why anyone would suspect that Chinese and Russian intelligence would be interested in the documents he has.
It’s also important to remember that the process by which Snowden got security clearance is broken. He probably should have never had access to the documents he stole in the first place. It’s possible he saw a chance to make a name for himself and took it without understanding the repercussions.
From his statements, Snowden clearly considers himself a hero and his actions a public service. History might prove him to be something else - a rube who didn’t understand the magnitude of what he was doing.
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