The Edward Snowden leaks were not wholly contemptible. Unlike, it’s now thoroughly clear, Edward Snowden himself.
As tens of thousands of Russian troops threatened Ukraine, Snowden on Thursday played a set piece in Vladimir Putin’s latest act of propaganda, appearing on a televised question-and-answer session with the Russian president. Snowden began with a denunciation of American data collection practices and then asked Putin a timid question about Russia’s policy on Internet surveillance. Putin responded, misleadingly, that Russia has laws restraining state security agents and judicial and political oversight of surveillance operations. The Russian president said he hopes — hopes! — Russia never conducts intrusive data collection.
The Post’s Adam Taylor listed many of the ways in which Putin’s answer is dishonest about the unchecked Russian security state. But Putin’s circle has been on a campaign to portray Russia as a bastion of freedom and respect for human rights, relative to Western governments’ arrogant behavior against their rivals and their own people. It is theater, reminiscent of the way the Soviet authorities used to sell the Russian people barely disguised lies about the West and about their own miserable system, deployed to mask Russia’s outrageous behavior in Eastern Europe. Snowden just lent his star power to the act.
Lest you wonder whether the National Security Agency leaker simply took the best opportunity he had to ask an honest question, consider the circumstances: Heavy state control over the airwaves in Russia, especially programs on which Putin appears, surely makes these sorts of things more staged than a professional wrestling match. Besides, if Snowden really wanted to press Putin, he would have listed the variety of human rights abuses and abridgments of free speech in which the Russian state is implicated — not to mention the suspicious murders of Russian journalists — rather than devoting his preamble to U.S. policy.
It is one thing to break an oath to keep U.S. secrets. The U.S. government persistently over-classifies material. Even if not all of Snowden’s revelations were helpful, some leaks are necessary. But Snowden surrendered any remaining shred of dignity on Thursday. If he had any choice in the matter, he should have declined to appear. If he did not have a choice, he should have surrendered to the U.S. embassy before humiliating himself. If he could not do even that, he should have protested when it was his turn to play his part. Instead, he revealed his bankruptcy of principle.
UPDATE, April 18, 11:00 a.m.: Snowden unrepentantly defended himself in a commentary the Guardian published on Friday. He claims he was trying to force Putin on the record about Russian state surveillance, and that journalists can now follow-up on his answer. This reasoning demonstrates that Snowden is either tragically, improbably naive about the role he played on Russian state television, or that he is extremely disingenuous. The bottom line is that Snowden helped Putin manipulate his Russian audience, most of whom will never see the sort of follow-up accountability journalism on Putin’s answer that one would expect in a liberal democracy. He did not ask Putin a tough question. His explanation — that he first needed to establish Putin’s position before criticizing it — does not make sense, given that there is already plenty of information available on the Russian government’s surveillance capabilities and on the wide-ranging abuse of its people’s various rights. Subsequently calling Russia’s ruler to account in a Western newspaper does not change any of that.