What are we to make of Edward Snowden? I know what I once made of him. He was no real whistleblower, I wrote, but “ridiculously cinematic” and “narcissistic” as well. As time has proved, my judgments were just plain wrong. Whatever Snowden is, he is curiously modest and has bent over backward to ensure that the information he has divulged has done as little damage as possible. As a “traitor,” he lacks the requisite intent and menace.
But traitor is what Snowden has been roundly called. Harry Reid: “I think Snowden is a traitor.” John Boehner: “He’s a traitor.” Rep. Peter King: “This guy is a traitor; he’s a defector.” And Dick Cheney not only denounced Snowden as a “traitor” but also suggested that he might have shared information with the Chinese. This innuendo, as with Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, is more proof of Cheney’s unerring determination to be cosmically wrong.
The early denunciations of Snowden now seem both over the top and beside the point. If he is a traitor, then which side did he betray and to whom does he now owe allegiance? Benedict Arnold, America’s most famous traitor, sold out to the British during the Revolutionary War and wound up a general in King George III’s army. Snowden seems to have sold out to no one. In fact, a knowledgeable source says that Snowden has not even sold his life story and has rebuffed offers of cash for interviews. Maybe his most un-American act is passing up a chance at easy money. Someone ought to look into this.
Snowden’s residency in Russia has been forced upon him — he had nowhere else to go. Those people who insist he should come home and go to jail lack a healthy regard for the rigors of imprisonment. After a while it can be no fun. Snowden insists that neither the Russians nor, before them, the Chinese have gotten their grubby hands on his top-secret material, and indeed, this fits with his M.O. He has been careful with his info, doling it out to responsible news organizations — The Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, etc. — and not tossing it up in the air, WikiLeaks style, and echoing the silly mantra “Information wants to be free.” (No. Information, like most of us, wants a home in the Hamptons.)
My initial column on Snowden was predicated on the belief that, really, nothing he revealed was new. Didn’t members of Congress know all this stuff and hadn’t much of it leaked? Yes, that’s largely true. But my mouth is agape at the sheer size of these data-gathering programs — a cascade of news stories that leads me to conclude that this very column was known to the National Security Agency before it was known to my editors. I also wrote that “No one lied about the various programs” Snowden disclosed. But then we found out that James Clapper did. The director of national intelligence was asked at a Senate hearing in March if “the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false” and he replied that it was. Actually, it was his answer that was “completely false.”
Snowden is one of those people for whom the conjunction “and” is apt. Normally, I prefer the more emphatic “but” so I could say “Snowden did some good but he did a greater amount of damage.” Trouble is, I’m not sure of that. I am sure, though, that he has instigated a worthwhile debate. I am sure that police powers granted the government will be abused over time and that Snowden is an authentic whistleblower, appalled at what he saw on his computer screen and wishing, like Longfellow’s Paul Revere, to tell “every Middlesex village and farm” what our intelligence agencies were doing. Who do they think they are, Google?
But (and?) I am at a loss to say what should be done with Snowden. He broke the law, this is true. He has been chary with his information, but he cannot know all its ramifications and, anyway, the government can’t allow anyone to decide for himself what should be revealed. That, too, is true. So Snowden is, to my mind, a bit like John Brown, the zealot who intensely felt the inhumanity of slavery and broke the law in an attempt to end the practice. My analogy is not neat — Brown killed some people — but you get the point. I suppose Snowden needs to be punished but not as a traitor. He may have been technically disloyal to America but not, after some reflection, to American values.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.