Two British dissenters had used the pseudonym. Clement Walker, a 17th-century detractor of Parliament, died in the brutal confines of the Tower of London. Two centuries later, social critic Henry Dunckley adopted “Verax” as his byline over weekly columns in the Manchester Examiner. He was showered with testimonials and an honorary degree.
Edward Joseph Snowden, 29, knew full well the risks he had undertaken and the awesome powers that would soon be arrayed to hunt for him. Pseudonyms were the least of his precautions as we corresponded from afar. Snowden was spilling some of the most sensitive secrets of a surveillance apparatus he had grown to detest. By late last month, he believed he was already “on the X” — exposure imminent.
“I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end,” he wrote in early May, before we had our first direct contact. He warned that even journalists who pursued his story were at risk until they published.
The U.S. intelligence community, he wrote, “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information.”
I did not believe that literally, but I knew he had reason to fear.
A series of indirect contacts preceded our first direct exchange May 16. Snowden was not yet ready to tell me his name, but he said he was certain to be exposed — by his own hand or somebody else’s. Until then, he asked that I not quote him at length. He said semantic analysis, another of the NSA’s capabilities, would identify him by his patterns of language.
“You can’t protect the source,” he wrote, “but if you help me make the truth known, I will consider it a fair trade.” Later, he added, “There’s no saving me.”
I asked him, at the risk of estrangement, how he could justify exposing intelligence methods that might benefit U.S. adversaries.
“Perhaps I am naive,” he replied, “but I believe that at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents.” The steady expansion of surveillance powers, he wrote, is “such a direct threat to democratic governance that I have risked my life and family for it.”
In an e-mail on May 24, he dropped a bombshell. Whistleblowers before him, he said, had been destroyed by the experience. Snowden wanted “to embolden others to step forward,” he wrote, by showing that “they can win.” He therefore planned to apply for asylum in Iceland or some other country “with strong internet and press freedoms,” although “the strength of the reaction will determine how choosy I can be.”