"If I defected at all," former NSA contractor Edward Snowden told The Washington Post's Barton Gellman in an interview in Moscow, "I defected from the government to the public."
Snowden returned several times to this distinction, between the U.S. government and its public, to argue that if he had worked against the former, it was only in service of the latter and the higher ideals it represents. On its face, this is a reasonable position and certainly consistent with how Snowden has framed his decision to leak U.S. secrets to the world.
At a deeper level, though, Snowden's language and his description of his mission echo a worldview that is unique neither to him nor even to Americans. These ideas, that the government has strayed far enough from the public interest that it must be brought back into check, and more fundamentally that a person can and perhaps should be loyal to the nation over its government, is a worldview that in any other national context we would call nationalism.
Leaks of the NSA's surveillance programs by Snowden, which the Obama administration has at times portrayed as traitorous, were actually, in Snowden's telling, acts of patriotic loyalty -- something that he suggests administration officials can't see because they themselves have lost that sense of loyalty.
He said of his nondisclosure agreement with the NSA: "The oath of allegiance is not an oath of secrecy.... That is an oath to the Constitution. That is the oath that I kept that [NSA chief] Keith Alexander and [Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper did not."
For a nationalist, loyalty to the abstract ideal of the nation -- personified by "the people" or "the public," or in the U.S. context by the Constitution -- transcends all else. Snowden's worldview seems to fit this idea perfectly. In working against U.S. government programs, he seems to argue, he is both serving a higher fealty to the nation and helping its government to return to the path from which it's strayed.
“I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA,” he told Gellman. “I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don’t realize it.”
In the nationalist's worldview, when a government strays from its primary duty of serving the nation, it becomes not just justifiable but near compulsory to challenge that government on behalf of the nation. Working against the government, in this view, isn't an act of treachery, but is in fact the highest level of patriotism, for it demonstrates an allegiance to the nation itself and calls attention to the enemies within.
Nationalist movements like these are typically right-wing, such as in the streets and the social networks of contemporary China or in much of 1980s Latin America. But not always. The Egyptian protesters who toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, for example, could be called left-wing nationalists, having decried Mubarak for failing both liberal values and the national ideal of the Egyptian nation. So it would not be outlandish for Snowden to be both a left-leaning libertarian and a nationalist.
Snowden positions himself, in this interview, as working on behalf of the nation rather than on behalf of -- and, perhaps, in opposition to -- the government. This is a defining feature of many a nationalist movement, this idea that the government no longer truly represents the nation (used interchangeably in the United States with "the people") and must thus be challenged from the outside.
It's also potentially dangerous, as Snowden himself acknowledges when he admits he couldn't be sure if people would support his decisions. When one person can pick up the mantle of "the nation" to go outside or actively challenge democratic institutions, it risks undermining them. This doesn't mean that American democracy is going to collapse because Snowden broke protocol, of course. But it allows anyone to see actions against the government, against democratic institutions, as serving the nation; it allows anyone to see their beliefs and concerns as representing the greater interests of the country.
Snowden had an answer for this. “That whole question -- who elected you? -- inverts the model,” he said in the interview. “They elected me. The overseers.... [Congressman] Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden.... The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility.”
Nationalist movements have long used similar arguments: My actions against the state are compelled by the failures of the state to properly serve the nation. In far, far more extreme forms -- iterations so different from Snowden's case that I raise them only to illustrate the underlying ideological commonalities -- they've underpinned rebellions, or movements such as the 1930s Japanese military officers who would storm government offices with swords to protest their supposed failures to serve the higher national interests. Again, to be clear, Snowden has not gone anywhere near these lengths. But the parallels may help explain why some Americans, particularly those who serve in government, can seem so rankled by Snowden's claim to serve the national interest.
"No one has the right to usurp the constitutional system -- not the NSA in the name of 'national security,' and not Edward Snowden," Andrew Exum, who's worked in a defense-oriented think tank and previously in the Pentagon, wrote on Twitter in response to Snowden's interview. "History will remember Edward Snowden fondly because of the way he forced changes in the relationship between the state & its citizenry. But we can't have a country in which any Tom, Dick or Harry believes he can usurp the democratic system when he feels like it."
The question of who can claim to serve the nation is a particularly tricky one in this case because so much of the debate revolves around secret programs; Snowden had to first act against the government by releasing classified NSA documents before he could even begin to position those leaks as serving the nation.
On the one hand, as critics such as Exum note, we have a democratic system precisely to implement the national will. While Snowden's revelations have turned out to be generally popular among Americans, he didn't leak NSA secrets because he'd run a Gallup poll and determined that Americans would support him; he just decided that they probably would or should. And anybody could decide that. But, on the other hand, as Snowden's supporters would correctly note, Americans couldn't express a popular desire to rein in NSA bulk data collection because they didn't know it existed. It's a bit of a catch-22.
Snowden's nationalist flavor may be what makes him so polarizing, what makes him so admired by supporters and loathed by detractors. For Americans who share Snowden's view that he is acting on behalf of the nation, he's a nationalist hero -- and even if nobody calls him that, that's something that has always inspired great passion in people, particularly Americans.
But for Americans who disagree with this, who see Snowden as falsely claiming to represent the nation when he represents only his particular viewpoint, his actions are an insult and an ideological imposition. And that dichotomy speaks to the power and the danger of taking up the nationalist cause.