At his request, The Guardian has reported the identity of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed last week that, among other surveillance activities, the US government keeps phone logs of millions of Verizon customers. It also logs customers of AT&T, Sprint and Nextel, and collects “metadata” from Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL and YouTube. As soon as a MetroPCS user successfully completes a call, the NSA will write that down, too. It’s kind of disturbing, but what is perhaps most disturbing is that, now that its secret domestic surveillance program has been revealed, the executive branch has no intention of shutting it down. In the context, Snowden’s decision to out himself is very interesting.
As of this writing, Snowden is in either a ski mask with the eyes sewn shut or Hong Kong. He chose that island protectorate because it enjoys strong protections for the press and a healthy tradition of political dissent, but defers to Beijing in its foreign policy. If there is one country willing to defy the US government but not willing to dissolve your body in acid to get your cell phone—ahem, Russia—it’s China.
Snowden does not want to be extradited. Why, then, did he reveal his own identity? Given his situation, two reasons seem plausible:
- He believes the NSA will figure out it was him anyway.
- He does not want to be killed.
Item (1) seems a little farfetched. In order to determine which NSA employee leaked information to The Guardian, the US government would need to survey the phone records, emails and credit card histories of virtually every American—oh. Okay, they can do that. As of this writing, the same people who thought the Sacajawea dollar would catch like wildfire know everyone you call, email, or give money to, plus many of your favorite cat videos. Still, Snowden is surely a little paranoid about the being killed part, right? For example, he said this:
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.
I want to believe that the Triads are after me as much as anyone else does, but it’s still kind of a dog whistle for insanity. The CIA isn’t in the habit of kidnapping and torturing people, and even when they do, it’s never an innocent—oh. Okay, so American intelligence services do kidnap and torture people, and they do log all the phone calls and email communications of virtually everyone in the United States. But they wouldn’t do it in a way that’s, you know, bad. Would they?
That’s the big question at the heart of all this, of course. By making himself a public figure who is publicly in Hong Kong, Snowden has made it difficult for the US government to secretly kill him. The executive branch has to either let him go or publicly extradite and punish him—something they will have a hard time doing if this massive, secret surveillance program really isn’t supposed to be a big deal.
The eerie genius of the Obama administration’s response to this leak thus far lies in its nonchalance. Even though PRISM and phone records collections were top secret, the executive branch has met their exposure with bored exasperation. It’s really not a big deal, according to the President. Yet it is a big deal, both for its Constitutional implications and for the glaring problem that it was actively kept secret from the American people.
You can pretend that your secret wasn’t a big deal by acting like it wasn’t a big deal that it was exposed. But killing the person who exposed it kind of gives the lie to your nonchalance. By making himself a known figure, Snowden has forced the American government to either make good on its spin by letting him go, or to show its hand by punishing the American who told the other Americans they were being spied upon.
It’s a smart move, in addition to being an incredibly brave one. I still can’t get my mind around the President’s apparent confidence in the assurance that the secret domestic spying program is for our own good. That shouldn’t settle the issue, and I can’t decide which terrifies me more: that Obama thinks it will, or that he might be right. Both the responsible anti-terrorist surveillance program and the repressive secret police tell you they’re doing it with your best interests at heart. But maybe only one of them kills the guy who told you they existed in the first place.