The UK Guardian revealed the source for its stories on the NSA phone-monitoring story (and, evidently, the Washington Post story about the PRISM Internet snooping program) is a 29-year-old IT specialist for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton named Edward Snowden.
He says he enlisted in the Army with an eye towards fighting in Iraq because "I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression," ended up spending three years as a CIA security technician, and voted for Barack Obama. He now claims to be deeply disillusioned about Iraq, the CIA, and Obama. He might be one of the most disillusioned people in the whole world.
He's also dishonest, having lied to his supervisors and claimed he needed time off for epilepsy treatment, when in reality he was copying classified documents and preparing for a flight to Hong Kong, abandoning his family and girlfriend in Hawaii without telling them what he was up to. He's holed up in a posh Hong Kong hotel now, supposedly because he knows the U.S. government can't get him there, and because Hong Kong has "a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent."
Yes, when I ponder the spirit of free speech and dissent, China is the first world government that pops into my mind. Snowden is evidently thinking about defecting to China, insisting that Americans have that wonderful nation all wrong, and it's not really our enemy. He also talks about seeking refuge in Iceland, and while he makes that sound like a wistful daydream, NBC News says activists in Iceland are pressuring their government to grant him asylum, while Snowden may have underestimated the willingness of authorities in Hong Kong to hand him over to American law enforcement. There has been some speculation that he might have been working as a Chinese espionage agent all along.
The UK Guardian portrays Snowden as a paranoid who sees himself as the hero of an espionage potboiler:
"All my options are bad," he said. The US could begin extradition proceedings against him, a potentially problematic, lengthy and unpredictable course for Washington. Or the Chinese government might whisk him away for questioning, viewing him as a useful source of information. Or he might end up being grabbed and bundled into a plane bound for US territory.
"Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads. Any of their agents or assets," he said.
"We have got a CIA station just up the road ??? the consulate here in Hong Kong ??? and I am sure they are going to be busy for the next week. And that is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be."
Having watched the Obama administration prosecute whistleblowers at a historically unprecedented rate, he fully expects the US government to attempt to use all its weight to punish him. "I am not afraid," he said calmly, "because this is the choice I've made."
He predicts the government will launch an investigation and "say I have broken the Espionage Act and helped our enemies, but that can be used against anyone who points out how massive and invasive the system has become".
He describes himself as an admirer of Bradley Manning and "Pentagon Papers" leaker Daniel Ellsberg (who wrote a UK Guardian editorial in Snowden's defense over the weekend.) Snowden has a keen appreciation of his own historic importance, which his friends at the Guardian miss no opportunity to emphasize:
Snowden will go down in history as one of America's most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning. He is responsible for handing over material from one of the world's most secretive organisations ??? the NSA.
In a note accompanying the first set of documents he provided, he wrote: "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," but "I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."
Despite his determination to be publicly unveiled, he repeatedly insisted that he wants to avoid the media spotlight. "I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing."
He does not fear the consequences of going public, he said, only that doing so will distract attention from the issues raised by his disclosures. "I know the media likes to personalise political debates, and I know the government will demonise me."
Despite these fears, he remained hopeful his outing will not divert attention from the substance of his disclosures. "I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in." He added: "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."
He has had "a very comfortable life" that included a salary of roughly $200,000, a girlfriend with whom he shared a home in Hawaii, a stable career, and a family he loves. "I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."
His description of his military and intelligence careers seem a bit off. He claims he soured on the Army because "most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone." The horrible act of CIA skulduggery that he describes as his "formative" experience involved getting a Swiss banker drunk so they could form a "bond" that led to "successful recruitment." That doesn't sound like a particularly hair-raising bit of tradecraft, and Snowden is just plain nuts if he thinks intel agencies around the world are not employing such recruiting tactics on a regular basis.
Some will read Snowden's interview with the Guardian and come away thinking he might be suffering from mental illness, and for all his talk about growing disillusioned with the U.S. government, his naivete toward states like China appears boundless. (Here's a tip for you, Mr. Snowden: if your new pals in China decide you're a threat, you won't be barricading yourself inside any luxury hotels and giving interviews about all the terrible things they might be prepared to do.) He doesn't seem worried about the actions of any government but the one he betrayed. Like many who hold such sentiments, he sees himself as a crusader standing up for what America was, or could be again. That line of thinking can be used to justify any number of offenses against what America is. Snowden says "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," but in fact he did do something wrong - he willfully broke a number of laws, unlike the government agency he "blew the whistle on."
The story he revealed is, nevertheless, disturbing. The NSA may have acted within legal parameters, but still done something many (most?) Americans don't agree with, and didn't think they signed up for. There's a lot of grumbling about the Fourth Amendment, but frankly we've grown very comfortable with legislation that overrides Constitutional principle; I'd love to reverse that trend, but I doubt such a crusade will begin here. Still, many Americans would agree with Snowden when he says that ongoing, indiscriminate surveillance of people who have done nothing wrong is unacceptable.
The Obama Administration has proven itself uniquely untrustworthy when it comes to handling sensitive information about American citizens. Even if the President himself is given copious benefit of the doubt, his own defense against the IRS scandal claims his Administration is riddled with people who won't hesitate to abuse confidential data for personal and political ends, and Barack Obama has expressed absolutely zero interest in cleaning house.
But do we really want to subcontract decisions about official secrecy to self-appointed freelance judges, from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame? They have even less accountability than the governments they harass, and they're rather picky about which governments get the transparency treatment. They're creating a world in which the United States and its closest allies are the only governments that can't run secret intelligence operations - an act of unilateral intel disarmament that is no more likely to produce voluntary, reciprocal transparency from the world's bad actors than unilateral nuclear disarmament would have been.
Personally, I'm deeply concerned about what the NSA did, but I also remain deeply concerned about the terrorists they're trying to catch. There must be some way for them to pursue our security goals without monitoring everyone. Americans need a government that respects our right to privacy. We also need soldiers, agents, and contractors who respect their oaths. Snowden certainly has given us plenty to worry about.
Update: A milblogger finds Snowden's account of his aborted military career tough to swallow.