Is Edward Snowden seeking the spotlight?

December 17, 2013

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden (Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras/Guardian)

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has kept a pretty low profile since he was granted asylum in Russia. After he was initially revealed as the source of the leaks, Snowden appeared to make a conscious choice to mostly stay silent as story after story was reported -- a tactic which has left journalists and the public to focus on the leaked documents and programs they reveal. So while a handful of details about his life in exile have leaked out, for the most part he has been pretty quiet. Until this week.

First, he released a statement in response to a federal judge's ruling that the NSA's phone records program was likely unconstitutional via journalist Glenn Greenwald. “I acted on my belief that the NSA's mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts,” Snowden wrote, as first reported by The New York Times.

“Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights,”  the TIME magazine Person of the Year runner-up (and The Switch's Person of the Year) said, adding he thought it would be, “the first of many.”

Then, Snowden published an open letter to the people of Brazil on local media outlet Floha de Sao Paulo. In that letter, he said that Brazilian politicians had implored him to assist in an investigation into NSA programs, but that he was unable to participate at this time due to his current asylum status. "Until a country grants permanent political asylum," Snowden argued, "the US government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak."

Greenwald told Buzzfeed that the letter was being "wildly misreported" as a renewed request for asylum. "He already requested asylum months ago to Brazil and several other governments, and it’s still pending." A story accompanying the open letter says Greenwald and his Brazilian partner David Miranda "intend to lead a campaign" to get Brazil to grant Snowden asylum.

It's possible that the timing of these two incidents was just a coincidence. But it could also represent a shift in strategy for Snowden. One of the reported conditions of Snowden's temporary asylum in Russia was he "stop his work aimed at inflicting damage on [Russia's] American partners." And reports indicate that Russian security services have a significant amount of oversight over his activities. Given that Brazil has been one of the most outspoken critics of the NSA programs he revealed, Snowden's choice to speak up now may be aimed at getting more freedom to be vocal about those programs in the future.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Brian Fung | December 17, 2013