Who are Thomas Drake, William Binney, and J. Kirke Wiebe? These are men who all tried to warn the public of ubiquitous NSA surveillance, just like Edward Snowden. But what gives? They’re alive! They haven’t fled the country, so they’ve had to deal with all the tough repercussions that come with whistleblowing. But why aren’t they facing life in prison? Why weren’t they murdered by the government? Why didn’t we hear about NSA surveillance from them if they blew the whistle long ago?
Edward Snowden did not dump a huge mass of documents to WikiLeaks, like Bradley Manning, but instead the public has only seen a small fraction of damning PowerPoint presentations. Snowden did not attempt to contact NSA higher-ups or members of congress who are responsible for policy like the other NSA whistleblowers, but instead contacted the well-known demagogue Glen Greenwild, whose mere name sent famed scifi writer Cory Doctorow and former Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa into a hazy Twitter stupor in which they promoted seemingly anything, no matter how ridiculous.
I would never suggest that such an esteemed intellectual as Glen Greenwild would be unable to wear the hat of an objective reporter and perform a fine job of interviewing and fact-checking Edward Snowden, but it seems highly unlikely that Snowden would choose to go with a popular opinion columnist because of his journalistic chops. In fact, Snowden seems to have picked Greenwild because he would publish the documents quickly, after the Washington Post refused Snowden’s strict timeline. Was it Greenwild’s well-known flair for the dramatic which attracted Snowden? James Clapper, director of U.S. national intelligence, complained that the reporting had been rushed and full of hyperbole by people with “no clue” about the programs in question, but we know better than to trust the mendacious government on such matters.
Upon revealing his flight from American justice to Hong Kong, Snowden said, “I’m not going to hide.” Despite this flight and hopes of possible political asylum in Iceland, Snowden also stated, “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end.” Quite sure that the American government would end his life without trial, he expressed the fear that the intelligence community “will most certainly kill you . . .” Are these fears justified, or are they exaggeration? To be sure, the other NSA leakers have not had an easy time, but they seem to still be alive and perfectly capable of continuing to speak out. But why did the public ignore them and listen to Snowden? If Snowden was comfortable with sacrificing his life for truth, why would he escape to Hong Kong?
Surely, Snowden fled to Hong Kong because of practical concerns about uncovering the truth. He’d be killed if he wasn’t careful, but certainly he was not motivated by irrational fear. I can feel his commitment to truth, deep in my bones! Surely, Snowden was not interested in theatrics, even though he broke the story by partnering with an opinion columnist.
The other NSA whistleblowers have faced many negative repercussions because of their acts, but none appear to have been assassinated. How could this be? As Glen Greenwild said in a very popular tweet, “Instead of criticizing Snowden for trying to stay out of US prisons, we should ask why whistleblowers in the US feel compelled to flee.” But isn’t the act of questioning Snowden’s compulsion to flee the same as levying a critique of his flight? Obviously the U.S. has become so corrupt that the great American tradition of civil disobedience no longer applies. When Henry David Thoreau said, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” those were different times. Things have become so bad, in fact, that activists have to exaggerate and put on theatrics, otherwise no one will listen. Three other people have leaked the same story, but no one listened. What’s important to leakers like Snowden and journalists like Greenwild is not a commitment to truth, but a firm opposition to power at all costs, even if it means stretching the truth. If that also means the tradition of civil disobedience has to become as corrupt as the government, then that’s only the government’s fault. As Snowden himself said, “. . . the US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial.” But when, in the entire tradition of civil disobedience, made up exclusively of those brave enough to face unfair trials, did anyone ever expect a fair trial?