Publicity hound, coward, liar: Whistleblowers are inevitably demonized by their enemies -- Edward Snowden is no exception

NSA whistleblower Snowden wasn't surprised by the assault on his character. But he didn't make it easy

Published December 13, 2015 4:59PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Andrew Kelly/Salon)
(Reuters/Andrew Kelly/Salon)

Excerpted from "The Whistleblower's Dilemma: Snowden, Silkwood and Their Quest for the Truth"

The most powerful gun in the damage-control arsenal isn’t truth. It is demonization—a vicious assault on the character of the whistleblower in order to destroy credibility and distract from the message. The damage controller’s bag of tricks is as old as Machiavelli.

Find anything that borders on illegal behavior in the whistleblower’s past, such as court convictions, messy divorces, arrest reports, domestic violence complaints, a history of alcohol, child support issues, or drug abuse. Attack the whistleblower’s motive by alleging that he or she was driven by malice, revenge, deceit, greed, or hunger for publicity. Dig up colleagues, neighbors, and fellow workers who are willing to say, true or untrue, that the whistleblower is vindictive, sneaky, dishonest, prone to exaggerate, not a team player, disruptive in the workplace. Allege that the whistleblower is incompetent at his or her job, cannot be trusted with responsibility, or lacks leadership skills. Accuse the whistleblower of being a thief who stole proprietary documents, illegally revealed company secrets, broke a confidentiality agreement. Label the whistleblower mentally unstable.

Edward Snowden—“the world’s most wanted man by the world’s most powerful government”—wasn’t surprised that his enemies tried to assassinate his character. He expected as much. As he told Greenwald and the Guardian, “I know the government will demonize me. They’ll say I violated the Espionage Act. That I committed grave crimes. That I aided America’s enemies. That I endangered national security. I’m sure they’ll grab every incident they can find from my past and probably will exaggerate or even fabricate some to demonize me as much as possible. . . . What keeps a person passive and compliant is fear of repercussions. . . . I decided a while ago that I can live with whatever they do to me. The only thing I can’t live with is knowing that I did nothing.”

On the one hand, Snowden didn’t make it easy for demonizers. His personal life was squeaky clean. No arrest record. No string of parking tickets or DUIs. No fellow workers willing to denigrate his character, and no unsatisfactory work evaluations. No reports of drunken behavior or girlfriend abuse. No drug paraphernalia sitting around his apartment.

On the other hand, Snowden’s actions and statements presented his enemies with a lineup of emotionally charged targets carefully chosen to rouse the patriotic instincts of Americans. Edward Snowden is an egocentric publicity hound, a coward, and a liar. He is a spy, a traitor, and a criminal who betrayed his country.

Edward Snowden is an egocentric publicity hound.

The damage controllers are quick to point out that all you have to do is turn on the television or browse YouTube, read the Guardian, or scan social media blogs, and you’ll find Edward Snowden waiting for you. Snowden’s hunger for attention is so great, they claim, that you see him grinning on television shows beamed from Hong Kong, Berlin, Moscow, and London. And don’t forget Laura Poitras’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Citizenfour, featuring Snowden’s smirking face. And what about his string of hero awards like Germany’s Whistleblower Prize? And the dozens of invitations to deliver telecast speeches like the British annual Alternative Christmas Message. And how about Snowden making the short list for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize? And don’t forget the upcoming Oliver Stone movie Snowden. Has Edward Snowden ever turned down an interview request?

Do Snowden’s critics make a valid point? In accusing him of being a publicity hound, they are attacking the motive-behind-the-motive and challenging his integrity. Did he lie when he said that his objective was to expose massive and potentially criminal or unconstitutional spying and stimulate open debate? Wasn’t his true motive—conscious or subconscious—more personal? Wasn’t it to bask in the warmth of the spotlight as a self-proclaimed martyr? To earn a place in history?

Snowden denies the characterization. “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me,” he told Glenn Greenwald. “I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate—which I hope this [document release] will trigger around the globe—about what kind of world we want to live in. . . . My sole motive is to inform the public to that which is done in their name, and that which is done against them.”

Snowden makes an important distinction. There are three types of media stories swirling around him—those that deal with his personal life, those that cover his career, and those that focus on his message. He welcomes all the message attention he can get, while claiming he doesn’t want the personal attention and merely tolerates the spotlight on his professional career. “Unfortunately, the mainstream media now seem far more interested in what I said when I was seventeen,” he complained in a live chat with Guardian readers. “Or what my girlfriend looks like, rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.”

But Snowden can’t have it both ways. The minute he faced Poitras’s video camera in his hotel room in Hong Kong and revealed himself as the source of the NSA stories published in the Guardian and the Washington Post, he opened the door to his personal and professional life. In effect, by identifying himself as the leaker, Snowden made half of his story about me.

The canon of media questions is deceptively simple. Before it asks what, when, where, why, and how, it asks who. In Snowden’s case, the answer to who does more than just satisfy curiosity or pander to prurient interests. It lays a foundation for motive, which, next to truth, is the most critical element in evaluating the whistleblower. Who explores the whistleblower’s professional credentials, and these are important to establishing credibility.

Snowden supporters point out that his eagerness to explain to the media what his documents reveal and why he decided to leak them should come as no surprise. They say he has been consistent in stating his basic motive—to tell the world what the U.S. government is doing so that the people can exercise their right to decide whether they want the government to spy on them. One can hardly “tell the world” without using the media to the fullest extent.

Snowden’s enemies and critics are eager to point out that he fled the United States to avoid arrest and punishment and that he is hiding in foreign countries instead of manning up to the charges against him. They say that makes him a coward. Such an allegation strikes a deep chord in the soul of Americans who consider themselves patriotic and want to believe that turning himself in would be the honorable thing to do.

From his hotel room in Hong Kong, Snowden argued his defense: “I am not planning to hide who and what I am so I have no reason to go into hiding and feed conspiracy theories or demonizing comparisons. . . . I am not here to hide from justice. I’m here to reveal criminality.”

A coward is a person who lacks the courage to do, or endure, dangerous or unpleasant things. Does Snowden lack the courage to return to the United States to face the three criminal counts against him—theft of classified documents, possession of classified documents, and giving those classified documents to unauthorized people. If he returns and is convicted, he could get life in prison.

Edward Snowden is a coward.

Snowden has repeatedly said that he is willing to return to the United States to face a judge and jury, and that if he does, there would be “a huge chance” that he would go to prison. He’s willing to take that risk, he says, as long as he is guaranteed his constitutional right to a fair trial. He argues that the government is not offering him a fair trial for several reasons.

The government has publicly declared him guilty rather than innocent until proven guilty. And it has defined “the disclosure of secret, criminal—and even unconstitutional acts—as an unforgiveable crime.” But whether or not the disclosure is an unforgiveable crime is for a jury to decide, not the government.

To prevent classified information from being revealed in a public trial and to deny Snowden a propaganda platform, the Justice Department planned to try Snowden in a closed court under the provisions of the Classified Information Procedures Act. Passed by Congress in 1980, the act’s primary function is to prevent criminal defendants from blackmailing the government—or “graymailing,” as it is frequently called. The defendant presents the Justice Department with an either-or proposition—dismiss the charges or I will disclose classified information in my defense. Snowden argues that a closed court trial is a denial of his constitutional rights.

Finally, the Justice Department demands that Snowden plead guilty before it will negotiate terms for his return to the U.S. Snowden refuses to do so. He is willing to admit that he violated the provisions of the Espionage Act of 1917, but he is unwilling to concede that he committed a crime in doing so.

In demanding and defining the terms of a fair trial, Snowden is again being consistent. Wearing a muzzle is not an option. He has said over and over that he wants to tell Americans how the government is spying on them so that they can decide for themselves if they want to pay that price for protection in the era of the war on terror.

Snowden’s supporters point out that he declined to blow the whistle anonymously because he didn’t want innocent people to be hounded by government agents. Unlike most of the character assassins, who choose to work in the shadows and accuse him anonymously, Snowden faced Laura Poitras’s unforgiving camera. “I believe I have an obligation to explain why I’m doing this and what I hope to achieve,” he said. “I’m not afraid of what will happen to me. . . . I know it’s the right thing to do.”

In the opening credits of Poitras’s film, Citizenfour, the screen freezes on the words “NSA Whistleblower.” Then Snowden appears and says calmly, but with an anxiety that the viewer can feel rather than see: “My name is Ed Snowden. I’m twenty-nine years old. I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA in Hawaii.”

Is that cowardice? Snowden supporters ask his anonymous character assassins.

Edward Snowden is a liar.

Snowden said that he reported his concerns about the legality of NSA’s spy programs to his superiors. His detractors say that is a lie. Furthermore, they note that while he rails against America as an Orwellian state, he chose to hide in Russia, an Orwellian state. That, they say, makes him a hypocrite.

In sworn testimony before the European parliament, Snowden said that he had voiced his concerns about what he considered to be illegal NSA spy programs to at least ten NSA officials. He was more specific in interviews with NBC Nightly News and the Washington Post. “The NSA has records,” he told NBC. “They have copies of e-mails right now to their Office of General Counsel, to their oversight and compliance folks—from me—raising concerns about the NSA’s interpretation of its legal authorities.”

In an exclusive interview with Post reporters, Snowden said that he had raised his concerns about NSA spy programs to two superiors in NSA’s Technology Directorate and to two in the Agency’s Threat Operations Center in Hawaii. Consistent with his concern about shielding the identities of intelligence personnel, Snowden declined to reveal the names of the officials to whom he complained or to make public his e-mails to them.

In response to Snowden’s claims, NSA officials who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Washington Post that “after extensive investigation, including interviews with his former supervisors and coworkers, we have not found any evidence to support Mr. Snowden’s contention that he brought these matters to anyone’s attention.” NSA deputy director Rick Ledgett, who spoke on the record, dodged the issue with a lawyerly sidestep. He said that Snowden made no formal complaints. Then he conveniently neglected to define the word “formal.” Except for its deceptive premise, Ledgett’s straw man logic was airtight: For a complaint to be recognized as a complaint, it must be formal.

Snowden did not issue a formal complaint.

Therefore, Snowden did not issue a complaint.

Ledgett went on to say that if Snowden complained personally or informally, no one has come forward to acknowledge it.

In response to Ledgett and the anonymous NSA officials, Snowden threw down the gauntlet. “I directly challenge the NSA to deny that I contacted NSA oversight and compliance bodies directly via e-mail,” he said, “and that I specifically expressed concerns about their suspect interpretation of the law. And I welcome members of Congress to request a written answer to this question.”

The issue is basically a high-stakes, he said-they said spat. Who is telling the truth? Who is bending the truth? Who is lying? Snowden supporters argue that the NSA and the intelligence community are the liars, not Edward Snowden. The existence of NSA programs like PRISM and BOUNDLESS INFORMANT prove, they point out, that NSA officials have been lying to Congress for years about the scope and breadth of the agency’s bulk spying on Americans. Defenders of Snowden also point out that both NSA director General Keith B. Alexander and National Intelligence director James Clapper lied to Congress about NSA programs. (Lying to Congress is a felony.) Citizenfour contains bone-chilling clips of their false sworn testimony.

In one clip, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, asks Clapper: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions of Americans?”

“No, sir,” Clapper testifies without blinking an eye.
“It does not?” Wyden asks.
“Not wittingly,” Clapper replies.
 In light of NSA’s long history of deceit, and in response to accusations that Edward Snowden lied, his supporters ask: Why should the public believe anything the NSA says unless it presents compelling evidence that leaves no doubt? Or to put their concern another way—one should assume that the NSA is lying until it proves it is telling the truth. Only time will tell who is lying—Edward Snowden or the National Security Agency. If anyone cares by then.

Excerpted from "The Whistleblower's Dilemma: Snowden, Silkwood and Their Quest for the Truth" by Richard Rashke. Copyright © 2015 by Richard Rashke. Reprinted by permission of Delphinium Books.

By Richard Rashke

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