Who is Edward Snowden? It depends on who you ask. Many on the left have been quick to take him at his word and have concluded that he’s a whistleblower and a concerned citizen. Members of Congress and high-level intelligence officials call him a traitor. At the very least, he violated the oath that he took to not disclose classified information — which certainly makes him a felon. But to really understand who Edward Snowden is, one must seek to understand the motivations behind his actions. And the more one does, the less convincing his hero persona becomes.
First, despite evidence that he had become disillusioned with the intelligence community as early as 2007, Snowden continued to work in sensitive positions for the CIA and for private contractors. During his live interview with The Guardian, he claimed that he did so because he held out hope that things would change under Obama’s watch. Perhaps. A more likely story is that he had become too comfortable with his outsized salary to actually stay true to his morals and find a new career, that is, until he had saved enough money to betray the trust of his country from a luxury hotel in Hong Kong.
Second, there is no evidence to indicate that Snowden pursued appropriate whistleblowing channels within the government. The Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency both have robust protections for whistleblowers; and if those paths didn’t yield any results, Snowden easily could have contacted one of the committees in Congress charged with overseeing intelligence activities. If he had, he would have realized that those committees were fully aware of PRISM, and that they exercised rigorous oversight of how the program was used. Congress is not popular these days, but in a contest between congressional overseers — more than a few of whom are on the left side of the political spectrum — and a high school dropout systems administrator, I’d trust the judgment of the former any day of the week.
Third, we should examine the manner by which he has gone about leaking information and fleeing the country. Snowden downloaded classified information from the Hawaii NSA facility where he worked, and left the country with four laptops, suggesting that he still has many secrets left to tell. If the information that he intends to link was as judiciously selected as he has claimed, why would such a large amount of information be required to expose what he saw as unjust government programs? And why is he releasing information about U.S. government activities aimed at other countries? If he hadn’t sought to damage national security before, he certainly has now.
The selection of Hong Kong as a haven is also dubious. It is true that Hong Kong affords its citizens many liberties. But so do many other countries in the Pacific Rim and beyond. Legal experts believe that Hong Kong will likely extradite Snowden if he is caught. So why Hong Kong? It’s difficult to overlook the possibility that he has China on his mind. It wouldn’t be the first time. In a 2006 post in an online forum, he confessed that he’d like to live in China in the future, according to ABC news.
Based on the emerging picture of who Snowden is, it is not unfathomable that he would defect to China. The People’s Republic is one of the hardest of hard targets; it’s one of the few places that stymies the “most powerful intelligence agencies in the world,” as Snowden put it. And the Chinese would no doubt be interested in learning how the United States uses signals intelligence to collect information, secrets that are contained in Snowden’s brain and potentially on his laptops and thumb drives.
Whether Snowden is a traitor, a defector, or both, one thing is certain: He is not a hero. Heroes stick to principles and serve as moral examples. Snowden, on the other hand, betrayed his own convictions for years as he made a handsome salary, favored a splashy and damaging roll-out strategy over discretion and persistence, and left the country not with a specific program to expose but with laptops that could contain terabytes of information critical to our national security. It is time that we start seeing Snowden for what he truly is: a rogue, oath-breaking underachiever with an axe to grind and secrets to share.
Phillip Lohaus is a research fellow with the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.