While crass and underhanded, it is not out of the norm for those losing a debate to resort to character assassination. The side that is on the defensive argues by ad hominem attack. As certain members of Congress, the President, and members of the media find it harder and harder to defend the surveillance state in the face of outrage from privacy advocates and the tech industry, the narrative against Edward Snowden has taken on all the signs of character assassination. If Snowden is a bad person then the NSA is a victim and its actions good.
That narrative takes four forms. It is good to be able to quickly identify these attacks for what they are. Sometimes they appear to be carefully orchestrated as the timing of new talking points roll out on the Sunday morning talk shows seems much more than coincidence.
Russian spy! The most blatant attacks against Snowden take the form of accusing him of being an agent of Russia (and sometimes China, and often in the same breath). Senator Feinstein and Congressman Rogers are the most blatant, dropping suggestions that while they don’t know Snowden is working for the FSB it bears careful investigation.
Snowden responded to these accusations in an interview with The New Yorker, saying:
“This ‘Russian spy’ push is absurd.”
The New Yorker continues:
If he were a Russian spy, Snowden asked, “Why Hong Kong?” And why, then, was he “stuck in the airport forever” when he reached Moscow? (He spent 40 days in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo International Airport.) “Spies get treated better than that.”
But then, these are just things that a Soviet spy would say, right? Edward Lucas, author of several books on espionage, just published a lengthy essay in eBook format (The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster ) that is built around the theory of correlation equals causation. His argument: ”The uncannily good fit between the damage done by Snowden, and the Kremlin’s geopolitical and intelligence interests, is in my view more than a coincidence.”
The final word on Snowden’s alleged allegiance with Russia should belong to Reuters:
“Other U.S. security officials have told Reuters as recently as last week that the United States has no evidence at all that Snowden had any confederates who assisted him or guided him about what NSA materials to hack or how to do so.”
Social engineer! The single source for the story about Snowden’s social engineering of his co-workers at the NSA’s forward deployed base in beautiful Oahu is a Reuters story by
Mark Hosenball and Warren Strobel. Citing un-named government sources they claim that Snowden got access to all the documents he is leaking by subterfuge. This is a subtle piece of psyops. If Snowden is not really the clever system administrator, using his authorized access to NSA servers, but is a nasty hacker taking advantage of the gullibility of his co-workers, then two things are accomplished. First, Snowden is a shady character that steals things from innocent people. And second, the NSA’s IT controls are not at fault. No one can build a system that is defensible against social engineering! [False, of course]
In his live chat Snowden has this to say about that:
“With all due respect to Mark Hosenball, the Reuters report that put this out there was simply wrong. I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers.”
2 million documents! Just like the death toll in a natural disaster, the numbers seem to inflate over time. All of the initial reports of the Snowden affair mentioned the number 10,000 documents. Based on the importance of the 1% of those documents that have been covered by The Guardian, Washington Post, Politico, and Der Spiegel, 10,000 is an extraordinary number and frightening to those fighting a PR battle without, apparently, knowing exactly what these media companies have in their possession. So, it is strange that those spinning this narrative need the number to be higher.
First General Alexander, head of the NSA said it was 200,000, then CBS 60 minutes claimed it was 1.7 million, now numbers as high as 2 million are bantered about. It could be that the point is to make what likely is the real number, 10,000, seem small in comparison when you are hauled in front of your supervisors. “The good news, sir, is that Snowden only took 10,000 documents not the 2 million widely reported in the media.”
Unelected! This is the righteous outcry of talking heads, another subtle attempt to discredit the messenger and deflect attention from the message. Even Bill Maher, when interviewing Glenn Greenwald, rolled this one out as he simpered “Well if it’s all open, why don’t we get to choose who decides?” Implying that Greenwald may be worthy of trust but what about Paris Hilton?
Greenwald wrote a scathing response to the ‘unelected’ trope:
Who elected Daniel Ellsberg and The New York Times to take it upon themselves to reveal thousands of pages of the top secret Pentagon Papers to the American public?
Who elected Dana Priest and her still-unknown source(s) to take it upon themselves to reveal in The Washington Post the existence of the CIA’s top-secret network of black sites?
Who elected Sgt. Joseph Darby and the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh to take it upon themselves to tell Americans about the classified operations at Abu Ghraib?
Who elected Mark “Deep Throat” Felt to illegally disclose, and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to publish, secret information from an FBI investigation in the pages of The Washington Post?
Who elected Thomas Tamm, Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau to spill Bush’s top-secret NSA warrantless eavesdropping program in the pages of The New York Times?
Why did all these people – whom we didn’t elect – think they had the right to decide which classified information should be disclosed?
Keep your eye out for continued attacks on Edward Snowden’s past, motivations, and associations. But don’t lose sight of the content of the documents he has leaked and the implications.
I differ strongly with Edward Lucas, who ends his Snowden diatribe with: “The rush of secret material into the public realm has distracted opinion from the real issues: motives, benefits and damage.”
The real issue is not Snowden and his supporters’ motives, it is the content of the documents that demonstrate the extent of the surveillance state.