When the Edward Snowden story first burst on the scene early this year, one of the central debates that ensued was whether Snowden should be considered a whistleblower or a traitor. In the months since, this debate has largely faded from the conversation.
The events of this week are starting to revive that debate. Proof enough of this was a conversation this week on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, a sort of bellwether of Inside the Beltway thinking. In response to a federal judge ruling that the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone metadata was unconstitutional, Joe Scarborough, the former Florida Congressman who hosts Morning Joe, asked whether this made Snowden a whistleblower.
While claiming that he “didn’t know the definition of whistleblower,” Scarborough suggested that he believed Snowden might be one in light of the fact that the federal judge said the NSA’s actions would be deeply offensive to James Madison, the father of the U.S. constitution. John Heileman, one half of the unofficial biographers of recent U.S. presidential elections, agreed, saying the court’s ruling “vindicated” Snowden’s action.
I disagree and in fact would argue that at this point it is beyond dispute that Snowden is a traitor. Full disclosure: I always felt that Snowden was a traitor. This is not because I disagreed with his view that the NSA is out of control. Given the level of threat presented by terrorism today, I too am deeply worried by the extent the NSA goes to prevent these hypothetical attacks. One cannot help but be concerned about what America’s fate should a serious security threat materialize.
The reason why I believed from the beginning that Snowden was a traitor was not because of the information he had been leaking but the manner in which he had done it. In my view, a true whistleblower would have first pursued legal avenues for reining in the NSA, such as seeking out sympathetic members of Congress. The American people, after all, elect people to serve in Congress specifically for the purpose of representing their interests on important matters of state.
Additionally, in my view, a true patriotic whistleblower believes in his or her cause enough to be willing to accept the punishment their disclosures bring. If they truly believe in the righteousness of their cause, they’ll be confident enough that the American people will ultimately come to appreciate their actions and they’ll be pardoned. Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong and then Moscow showed he wasn’t willing to suffer the consequences for his actions, calling into question how much he believed in his cause.
This being said, while I personally felt this all made him a traitor, in the early days of the Snowden story I felt that there could a legitimate debate over whether he was a whistleblower or not. After all, while fleeing abroad certainly made Snowden a coward, it didn’t necessarily preclude him from being a whistleblower. The information he disclosed wasn’t necessarily any less important to restoring Americans’ liberty because of his personal shortcomings.
It has long since become apparent that Snowden should be viewed as a traitor, however. The main reason that Snowden cannot be seen as a whistleblower is the careless ways in which he collected and leaked information, which have only become fully apparent after the first month or so of the Snowden story breaking. Had Snowden been a whistleblower interested in protecting the American constitution, he would have carefully collected information documenting NSA overreach in spying on Americans. Only that would have been given to the journalists and newspapers Snowden contacted.
Instead, he collected an apparently unknowable amount of information (unknowable to both him and the NSA) and dumped it on the doorsteps of largely foreign newspapers. As he no doubt fully understood, most of these documents contained information pertaining to how the NSA collected intelligence on legitimate foreign targets, not Americans whatsoever.
Snowden of course would defend himself by pointing out that he hasn’t chosen what was published from his stolen documents. Indeed, he has quite self-righteously said that he believed he was too biased to determine what information it was in the public interest to publish. That is why, Snowden has claimed, he gave it to responsible journalists and editors to decide on which documents needed to be kept secret, and which the public should know about.
While all this sounds very noble it conveniently ignores the fact that society has not appointed journalists or newspaper editors to decide these matters, nor are they qualified to do so. In fact, journalists and editors ultimately have a different immediate interest than the American public; namely, the former are interested first and foremost in selling newspapers, not protecting U.S. national security. They may sometimes withhold information at the government’s request, but in general their preference is heavily weighted towards publishing information that sells papers.
This has been fully on display in the case of Snowden’s leaks. Although I haven’t been keeping a precise scorecard, it seems to me that the overwhelming majority of the stories that have been published from the Snowden documents are about U.S. spying on foreign nations, not its domestic operations. Americans’ rights are not at risk when the NSA taps the phones of foreign leaders. As such, leaking these documents were not the actions of a patriotic whistleblower.
In fact, as others have pointed out, information from the Snowden documents has been published in a manner that seemingly seeks to do as much harm to U.S. alliances across the world as possible. Meanwhile, Snowden seeking refuge in first China and then Russia nearly guarantees that the governments in these countries have gained a treasure trove of valuable information on NSA operations against their countries.
Stealing classified information to systematically undermine U.S. alliances across the world, while aiding U.S. adversaries, is practically the definition of treason. Snowden couldn’t help but know that his actions would lead to these outcomes. And for that reason it is beyond dispute that Snowden, regardless of whether or not some of his disclosures had any merit, has betrayed the United States and his fellow citizens. Nothing from this week or in the future will change this fact.