Edward Snowden, it seems, is at it again. When I saw a headline which suggested that the data thief had ‘confronted’ the Russian president Vladimir Putin, I almost began to like the guy. Perhaps, a small voice said, I was wrong to paint him as an ideologue, blind to the goodness of the United States, who sought refuge in the bosom of an oligarchic despot. Maybe, the voice continued, he had finally begun to earn his stripes as a legitimate enemy of those who hate freedom.
But my recantations were spared. In short: I was right all along.
In an obviously choreographed incident, Snowden popped up to ask Putin a softball question about spying. Putin replied, using the false language of one “professional” to another (oh yes, he was a KGB thug, remember?), saying, in effect, that those nasty Americans are far worse than little old him.
This feat of sycophancy accomplished, Snowden penned a particularly corrosive op-ed for the Guardian in which he gave himself a tremendous pat on the back.
Says Snowden: “I hoped that Putin’s answer – whatever it was – would provide opportunities for serious journalists and civil society to push the discussion further.” This is, as expertly pointed out by David Frum in the Atlantic, unlikely to happen. Why? “Russian journalists who do that end up dead.”
This means that ordinary Russians will have no idea of the heroic Edward’s English language declaration of victory. The grand aspirations of Snowden’s appearance will come to naught, but the negative effects, those which favour Putin and his ilk, will be very helpful to the regime indeed.
Snowden is not the ‘useful idiot’ of popular parlance precisely because he is not an idiot. Having worked with – and, of course, exposed – state secrets before, it would be pretty surprising to suddenly discover that he knows nothing about other nations’ security arrangements.
If, as we must accept, Snowden knows what he is doing, then it appears the principles to which he ascribes his actions in stealing and releasing NSA secrets to the world have been abandoned. It seems they are too cumbersome, too outdated, and perhaps even too dangerous.
This is ironic, considering Snowden’s public self-martyrdom, and the indulgence with which he has been treated by the America-hating luminaries of his and Glenn Greenwald’s political persuasion.
It is hard to escape the feeling that Snowden’s actions are helping Putin. His geopolitical rival is being discredited and criticised across the world. His own spy programmes – programmes so pervasive and obstructive that World Policy Journal speculated that, in the future, “Russia may even succeed in splintering the web, breaking off from the global Internet a[n] intranet that’s easier for it to control” – remain largely hidden from the populace.
If we put the two together, we come to a rather sad conclusion. Snowden knows what he is doing: the things he does directly assist Putin. What we are left with is that Snowden, through some form of whistleblowing metamorphosis, has changed from the golden boy of the freedom activists to the tacit supporter of one of the most repressive governments on the face of the planet.
While it is unlikely that Snowden deliberately set out to give America’s enemies leverage, that’s how it has worked out. Terrorists are on to American methods of surveillance. They know that merely switching mobile phones won’t keep them safe from interception. Putin now has two cards up his sleeve: his own network of communications monitors, and the certainty that he can beat the U.S. and others over the head for doing exactly the same thing.
There is also a rather bizarre situation emerging from Snowden’s devotees. These are people who are happy to believe that the U.S. government spies on them personally, that state machinery is not aimed at preventing terrorism, but is instead targeted at good and honest people – tinfoil hat territory. Yet when an idol is suspected of foul play – the very same one who paints himself as a catalyst of this new era of investigation and scepticism – they contort themselves in twisted mental gymnastics.
But their anguish, and the fact that Snowden himself is said to regret his actions, do not alter the facts of the matter. And they reveal more than a little about his true colours.