Thursday, May 29, 2014

He's Not Some Zealous Kook....

Last night, I watched the NBC News Special of Brian Williams interviewing Edward Snowden in Moscow, Russia last week.  First of all, let me say that NBC could have cut the number of commercial breaks for this report. They were long and intrusive, and after a while, it felt like NBC's comment on the importance of the interview, i.e. not very important at all.  Hello?!  What were you thinking, NBC?!  I thought you failed to impress while Snowden stood head-and-shoulders above you.

Although nervous at first, blinking a lot while listening to Williams, Snowden's body language overall was open, even-keeled, thoughtful, and relaxed.  He is clearly an intelligent man, articulate, and again, thoughtful.  I was surprised to learn that he'd been in the U.S. Army, and might still be if he'd not broken both of his legs.  I was surprised to learn that he'd worked for both the CIA and the DIA in the past.  While his claim of being a spy ("I was trained as a spy.") is questionable and would be difficult to verify -- the CIA never confirms their operatives' employment status -- Snowden clearly thinks like an analyst.  His examples of how the NSA can watch American citizens through their electronic gadgets were compelling and chilling.  I'm glad I don't own a smartphone.

Edward Snowden (Photo: NBC News)

Directly asked if he had met Russian President Putin, he said that no, nor was he receiving money from the Russian government, and they had not tried to interrogate him.  He explained that he'd not carried any of the material he took from the NSA with him when he left Hong Kong.  He knew how dangerous it would be for him to travel through Russia with it.  When asked why he was in Russia, he explained that it had never been his intent to stay there but to fly on to Latin America via Cuba.  The US State Department, however, had revoked his passport about the time he left Hong Kong, so that when he arrived in Moscow, his passport was no longer valid and he was "trapped" there by the State Department.  I had not known that detail about his travels.  He does not want to stay in Russia.  He misses the U.S., his family, friends, and job.  But he stands by his actions, and he has the courage of his convictions.

What interested me the most was getting a glimpse into Snowden's thought processes and motivations.  I was surprised by his forthrightness.  I doubted very much that he was trained as a spy, however, because actual spies work with people not machines.  But then I thought, he considers what he was doing at NSA as "spying," and in that context he doesn't distinguish between someone who's a NOC in a foreign country or his job at the NSA.  Then it made sense that he was deeply disturbed by what he was seeing done at the NSA, how surveillance made possible by the Espionage Act (or the Patriot Act earlier) in the wake of the 9/11/2001 attacks on American citizens by the government was eroding American's civil rights and privacy.  The surveillance was unchecked, unregulated, and previously unknown to the general public, and most likely unconstitutional.

From what I saw during the interview, Snowden impressed me as being genuine in his belief that he had acted for the good of the country.  He said he was human, that he could have made mistakes in the material that he released, but he tried to go through established channels at the NSA to raise concerns and failed.  The NSA does not inventory what it has so it doesn't really know what he took, and couldn't know until the material was released.  Snowden believes that he's still working for the government.

Brian Williams and Edward Snowden (Photo: NBC News)
Snowden wanted to insure that what was released would not compromise US national security, national defense, military operations or hurt people, as in revealing actual spies in foreign countries.  He chose to release through journalists so that they could double check with the government to insure there was nothing damaging.  He has accomplished his goal of making public how the NSA operates, of starting a national conversation about it, and of the government making changes.  All these things have and are happening.  And yet, Snowden didn't appear satisfied or happy about it.  He seemed still concerned about what could still be occurring that we don't know about.

Would he return to the U.S.?  He believes that he'd be charged under the Espionage Act and this law would not allow him to build a defense; in effect, there would be no real trial.  When asked if he were a traitor or a patriot, he sidestepped away from an answer.  He said that an argument could be made for both.  Later, he commented that sometimes it was necessary to do something that was "morally right but illegal."  I doubt he supports the Espionage Act.

I have yet to watch the analysis NBC did after the interview aired.  It's online here.  My personal response, however, was first surprise and then interest, followed by sympathy for Snowden.  I think he's a man who took action that he believed was in the best interests of his country, knowing that he could be charged under the Espionage Act for those actions.  He pointed out that no one in the U.S. government had given specific, concrete examples to back up the claims they were making about the damage he had allegedly done.  He may have a better opinion of himself in terms of his career than the NSA and the government does, i.e. giving himself more importance than he may have had.  But I do think that the government needs to listen to him, work with him, and allow him to help make the country a better, safer place for everyone.

One last detail: He thinks that the government, post 9/11, has acted to "exploit the national trauma" of that day.  He cautioned against putting security at the top of the nation's priorities.  When security is the most important thing to a country, it becomes a security state.  That is definitely not what Americans should want.... 

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