Anyone who has seen The Bourne Identity, or the many similar Hollywood films, finds the Edward Snowden saga familiar. A heroic fugitive insider is hunted by a rogue government agency. As the credits roll, our man on the run is vindicated, thanks to a combination of media coverage and belated congressional scrutiny. He gets the girl. The villains go to jail.
It is easy to go along with that narrative, particularly for journalists. We instinctively side with David, not Goliath. We thrill to the idea of disclosing secrets. We flinch at any constraint on press freedom. We may have little chance of winning the Nobel Peace Prize (for which Snowden has been nominated) but we certainly cheer his chances.
I disagree. Snowden is at best a self-indulgent “useful idiot” and at worst a traitor. His theft and publication of secret documents is anything but heroic. His accomplices deserve censure and probably prosecution. The applause they have received reflects astonishing naiveté and hypocrisy. A whistleblower needs to show clear and convincing evidence of abuse, and limit his breach of confidentiality to matters that concern it. Snowden did not. The documents published do not show the National Security Agency as a rogue agency. He has not found a single deliberate breach of Americans’ privacy. Like other bits of government, the NSA makes mistakes and chafes against its constraints. It is in need of reform. But Snowden has shown no sign of systematic, gross wrongdoing, or of contempt for judicial, legislative and political oversight, by the NSA.
The Snowdenistas, as I call them, say they have sparked a vital debate. It is good to discuss how electronic meta-data should be stored (by governments and by companies). But this is a limited benefit. It does not justify the catastrophic damage done to our intelligence agencies and diplomacy. The Snowdenistas have published material which has nothing to do with their purported cause, such as how democracies spy on dictatorships. The revelations about Norwegian and Swedish intelligence cooperation with the NSA against Russia are a glaring example of the Snowdenistas’ thoughtlessness. These countries have every reason to be worried about Russia. Their agencies operate under democratic control — and with strong public support. But for the Snowdenistas, the only thing that matters is that they cooperate with the NSA, the Great Satan of the intelligence world. Similarly, why is it in the public interest to reveal how the NSA intercepts emails, phone calls, and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan, or to show that the agency is intensifying scrutiny on the security of that country’s nuclear weapons? Snowden even revealed details of how the NSA hacks into computers and mobile phones in China and Hong Kong.
The ignorance and double standards of the Snowden fans are shocking. America’s system of intelligence oversight is the most comprehensive and rigorous in the world. It has taken the most elusive and lawless part of government and crammed it into a system of legislative and judicial control. Some would no doubt like it to be even stronger (I think it’s too politicised and cumbersome). If so, this question can be settled by the political process — but never by catastrophically destructive leaking. America is also part of the world’s only successful no-spy agreement, with its close allies — notably Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A list of countries which would trust Germany or France not to spy on them would be rather shorter.
Snowden and his allies say that they are keeping the stolen material safe, and that they redact the published material in order not to breach security. How can they possibly know what will be damaging and what may be harmless? Already one published slide failed to delete an agent’s name properly. Snowden’s revelations neatly and suspiciously fit the interests of one country: Russia. They weaken Western security relationships, corrode public trust, undermine the West’s standing in the eyes of the rest of the world, and paralyse our intelligence agencies. He and his followers seem oblivious to this. Like the anti-nuclear campaigners of the 1980s, they see Western faults with blinding clarity, but forget that we have foes and rivals.
It is odd that people who are so extraordinarily paranoid about their own governments are so trusting when it comes to the aims and capabilities of Russia — where Snowden arrived in such curious circumstances, and lives in such secrecy. (Scanty clues suggest that he is living in or near the Russian foreign intelligence headquarters in Yasenevo, south Moscow).
The political agenda of Snowden and his fans — people such as the bombastic Brazil-based blogger Glenn Greenwald, the hysterical hacktivist Jacob Appelbaum, and the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — cloaks extreme and muddled beliefs in the language of privacy rights, civil liberties and digital freedoms. A political party based on these quasi-anarchist, nihilist ideas would get nowhere. Yet Snowden and his allies threaten to bring about the greatest peacetime defeat in the West’s history. His is not a noble crusade. It is sabotage and treason. Someone should make a Hollywood film about it.