This summer, the fifth anniversary of Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance passed quietly, adrift on a tide of news that now daily sweeps the ground from under our feet. It has been a long five years, and not a period marked by increased understanding, transparency, or control of our personal data. In these years, we’ve learned much more about how Big Tech was not only sharing data with the NSA but collecting vast troves of information about us for its own purposes. And we’ve started to see the strategic ends to which Big Data can be put. In that sense, we’re only beginning to comprehend the full significance of Snowden’s disclosures.
This is not to say that we know more today about Snowden’s motivations or aims than we did in 2013. The question of whether or not Snowden was a Russian asset all along has been raised and debated. No evidence has been found that he was, just as no evidence has been found that he was a spy for China. His stated cause was the troubling expansion of surveillance of US citizens, but most of the documents he stole bore no relation to this avowed concern. A small percentage of what Snowden released of the 1.7 million documents that intelligence officials believe he accessed did indeed yield important information about domestic programs—for example, the continuation of Stellar Wind, a vast warrantless surveillance program authorized by George W. Bush after 9/11, creating legal structures for bulk collection that Obama then expanded. But many of them concerned foreign surveillance and cyberwarfare. This has led to speculation that he was working on behalf of some other organization or cause. We can’t know.
Regardless of his personal intentions, though, the Snowden phenomenon was far larger than the man himself, larger even than the documents he leaked. In retrospect, it showed us the first glimmerings of an emerging ideological realignment—a convergence, not for the first time, of the far left and the far right, and of libertarianism with authoritarianism. It was also a powerful intervention in information wars we didn’t yet know we were engaged in, but which we now need to understand.
In 2013, the good guys and bad guys appeared to sort themselves into neat and recognizable groups. The “war on terror” still dominated national security strategy and debate. It had made suspects of thousands of ordinary civilians, who needed to be monitored by intelligence agencies whose focus throughout the cold war had been primarily on state actors (the Soviet Union and its allies) that were presumed to have rational, if instrumental intentions. The new enemy was unreason, extremism, fanaticism, and it was potentially everywhere. But the Internet gave the intelligence community the capacity, if not the legal right, to peer behind the curtains of almost any living room in the United States and far beyond.
Snowden, by his own account, came to warn us that we were all being watched, guilty and innocent alike, with no legal justification. To those concerned primarily with security, the terrorists were the hidden hostile force. To many of those concerned about liberty, the “deep state” monitoring us was the omnipresent enemy. Most people managed to be largely unconcerned about both. But to the defenders of liberty, whether left liberals or libertarians, Snowden was straightforwardly a hero. Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian at the time, said of him:
His motives are remarkable. Snowden set out to expose the true behaviour of the US National Security Agency. On present evidence he has no interest in money… Nor does he have the kind of left-wing or Marxist sentiments which could lead him to being depicted as un-American. On the contrary, he is an enthusiast for the American constitution, and, like other fellow “hacktivists,” is a devotee of libertarian politician Ron Paul, whose views are well to the right of many Republicans.
The patriotic right, the internationalist left: these were the recognized camps in the now far-distant world of 2013. Snowden, who kept a copy of the US Constitution on his desk at the NSA, could be regarded by his sympathizers as a patriot engaging in a lone act of bravery for the benefit of all.
Of course, it wasn’t a solitary act. Snowden didn’t want to be purely a whistleblower like Mark Felt or Daniel Ellsberg; he wanted to be a figurehead. And he largely succeeded. For the last five years, the quietly principled persona he established in the public mind has galvanized opposition to the American “deep state,” and it has done so, in part, because it was promoted by an Academy Award-winning documentary film in which Snowden starred, a feature film about him directed by Oliver Stone in which he made an appearance, and the many talks he gives by video-link that have become his main source of income. He now has 3.83 million Twitter followers. He is an “influencer,” and a powerful one. Any assessment of the impact of his actions has to take into account not just the content of the documents he leaked, but the entire Edward Snowden Show.
In fact, most of what the public knows about Snowden has been filtered through the representations of him put together by a small, tight circle of chosen allies. All of them were, at the time, supporters of WikiLeaks, with whom Snowden has a troubled but intimate relationship. He initially considered leaking documents through WikiLeaks but changed his mind, he claims, in 2012 when Assange was forced into asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London under heavy surveillance, making access to him seem too difficult and risky. Instead, Snowden tried to make contact with one of WikiLeaks’ most vocal defenders, the independent journalist Glenn Greenwald. When he failed, he contacted the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, whom Greenwald had also vociferously defended when she drew unwanted government scrutiny after making a documentary film that followed a man who had been Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard. The scrutiny turned into harassment in 2011, she claims, when she began making a film about WikiLeaks.
Poitras had been a member of the Tor Project community (which developed the encrypted Tor web browser to make private online interactions possible) since 2010 when she reached out to Jacob Appelbaum, an important member of both the Tor Project and also WikiLeaks, after becoming a close friend and ally of Assange. We know from Wired’s Kevin Poulsen that Snowden was already in touch with the Tor community at least as early as 2012, having contacted Tor’s Runa Sandvik while he was still exfiltrating documents. In December 2012, he and Sandvik hosted a “crypto party” in Honolulu, where Snowden ran a session teaching people how to set up Tor servers. And it was through Tor’s Micah Lee (now working for The Intercept) that Snowden first contacted Poitras. In order to vet Snowden, Poitras turned to Appelbaum. Given the overlap between the Tor and WikiLeaks communities, Snowden was involved with the latter at least as early as his time working as a contractor for the NSA, in a job he took specifically in order to steal documents, in Hawaii.
Few people knew, when Citizenfour was released in 2014, how deeply embedded in both Tor and WikiLeaks Poitras was or how close an ideological affinity she then had with Assange. The Guardian had sensibly sent the experienced news reporter Ewen MacAskill with Poitras and Greenwald to Hong Kong, and this helped to create the impression that the interests of Snowden’s confidants were journalistic rather than ideological. We have subsequently seen glimpses of Poitras’s complex relationship with Assange in Risk, the version of her WikiLeaks film that was released in 2017. But Risk is not the movie she thought she was making at the time. The original film, called Asylum, was premiered at Cannes in 2016. Steven Zeitchik, of the Los Angeles Times, described it as a “lionizing portrait,” presenting Assange as a “maverick hero.” In Risk, on the other hand, we are exposed more to Assange’s narcissism and extremely unpleasant attitudes toward women, along with a wistful voiceover from Poitras reading passages from her production diary, worrying that Assange doesn’t like her, recounting a growing ambivalence about him.
In between the two films, Assange lost many supporters because of the part he played in the 2016 US elections, when WikiLeaks published stolen emails—now believed to have been hacked and supplied by Russian agents—that were damaging to Hillary Clinton. But Zeitchik discovered, when he asked Poitras about her own change of heart, that it wasn’t political but personal. Assange had turned his imperious attitude toward women on her, demanding before the Cannes screening that she cut material relating to accusations of rape by two women in Sweden. His tone, in particular, offended her. But her view of his actions leading up to the US election remained consistent with that of WikiLeaks supporters; he published the DNC emails because they were newsworthy, not as a tactic in an information war.
When Snowden initially contacted Poitras, she tells us in Risk, her first thought was that the FBI was trying to entrap her, Appelbaum, or Assange. Though Micah Lee and Appelbaum were both aware of her source, she tells us that she left for Hong Kong without Assange’s knowledge and that he was furious that she failed to ensure WikiLeaks received Snowden’s documents. Although Poitras presents herself retrospectively as an independent actor, while filming Snowden in Hong Kong she contacted Assange about arranging Snowden’s asylum and left him in WikiLeaks’ hands (through Assange’s emissary, Sarah Harrison). Poitras’s relations with Assange later became strained, but she remained part of the Tor Project and was involved in a relationship with Jacob Appelbaum. (She shows in the film that Appelbaum was subsequently accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment over a number of years.)
In Risk’s added, post-production voiceover, Poitras says of the Snowden case: “When they investigate this leak, they will create a narrative to say it was all a conspiracy. They won’t understand what really happened. That we all kept each other in the dark.” It’s not clear exactly what she means. But it is clear that “we all” means a community of like-minded and interdependent people; people who may each have their own grandiose ambitions and who have tortuously complex, manipulative, and secretive personal relationships with one another. Snowden chose to put himself in their hands.
If this group of people shared a political ideology, it was hard to define. They were often taken to belong to the left, since this is where criticisms of the national security state have tended to originate. But when Harrison, the WikiLeaks editor and Assange adviser, flew to Hong Kong to meet Snowden, she was coming directly from overseeing Assange’s unsuccessful electoral campaign for the Australian Senate, in which the WikiLeaks Party was apparently aligned with a far-right party. The WikiLeaks Party campaign team, led by Assange’s father and party secretary John Shipton, had made a high-profile visit to Syria’s authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad, and Shipton had heaped praise on Vladimir Putin’s efforts in the region, in contrast to America’s, in an interview with the state radio network Voice of Russia. The political historian Sean Wilentz, in what at the time, in 2014, was a rare critical article on Assange, Snowden, and Greenwald, argued that they shared nothing so coherent as a set of ideas but a common political impulse, one he described as “paranoid libertarianism.” With hindsight, we can also see that when they first became aligned, the overwhelming preoccupation of Poitras, Greenwald, Assange, and Snowden was the hypocrisy of the US state, which claimed to abide by international law, to respect human rights, to operate within the rule of law internally and yet continually breached its own purported standards and values.
They had good grounds for this view. The Iraq War, which was justified to the public using lies, fabricated evidence, and deliberate obfuscation of the overall objective, resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, as well as the rendition and torture of suspected “enemy combatants” at CIA black sites and their indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay. The doctrine of preemptive war had been revived, along with imperialist ambitions for a global pax Americana.
But cynicism about the rule of law exists on a spectrum. At one end, exposing government hypocrisy is motivated by a demand that a liberal-democratic state live up to its own ideals, that accountability be reinforced by increasing public awareness, establishing oversight committees, electing proactive politicians, and employing all the other mechanisms that have evolved in liberal democracies to prevent arbitrary or unchecked rule. These include popular protests, the civil disobedience that won civil rights battles, and, indeed, whistleblowing. At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that the law is always really politics in a different guise; it can provide a broad set of abstract norms but fails to specify how these should be applied in particular cases. Human beings make those decisions. And the decision-makers will ultimately be those with the most power.
On this view, the liberal notions of legality and legitimacy are always hypocritical. This was the view promulgated by one of the most influential legal theorists of the twentieth century, Carl Schmitt. He was a Nazi, who joined the party in 1933 and became known as the “crown jurist” of the Third Reich. But at the turn of the millennium, as Bush took America to war, Schmitt’s criticisms of liberalism were undergoing a renaissance on both the far right and the far left, especially in the academy. This set of attitudes has not been limited to high theory or confined to universities, but its congruence with authoritarianism has often been overlooked.
In Risk, we hear Assange say on the phone, regarding the legality of WikiLeaks’ actions in the US: “We say we’re protected by the First Amendment. But it’s all a matter of politics. Laws are interpreted by judges.” He has repeatedly expressed the view that the idea of legality is just a political tool (he especially stresses this when the one being accused of illegality is him). But the cynicism of the figures around Snowden derives not from a meta-view about the nature of law, like Schmitt’s, but from the view that America, the most powerful exponent of the rule of law, merely uses this ideal as a mask to disguise the unchecked power of the “deep state.” Snowden, a dissenting agent of the national security state brandishing his pocket Constitution, was seen by Rusbridger as an American patriot, but by his chosen allies as the most authoritative revealer of the irremediable depth of American hypocrisy.
In the WikiLeaks universe, the liberal ideal of the rule of law, both domestic and international, has been the lie that allows unaccountable power to grow into a world-dominating force. Sarah Harrison insists that the US, with the help of its allies, has constructed “a huge global intelligence, diplomatic, and military net that tries to see all, know all, govern all, decide all. It reaches all, and yet it is acting without [sic] impunity. This is the greatest unaccountable power of today—the United States and our Western democracies.” Greenwald has gradually shifted toward a similar position. Having initially supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but then been appalled by the civilian casualties and the use of torture, he asked in 2017: “Who has brought more death, and suffering, and tyranny to the world over the last six decades than the US national security state?”
This view of the US as the most malign actor in the world has now made him reluctant to criticize the actions of foreign states like Putin’s Russia. For example, asked about the Novichok poisoning of a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England, an attempted assassination attributed to the Kremlin, he responds that Obama’s drone strikes were morally no different—a gambit that, perhaps inadvertently, mimics the “whataboutism” of the Kremlin itself. But it wouldn’t make sense for Greenwald to refuse to condemn the misdeeds of other states on the grounds that America’s are worse unless he had come to feel that all such judgments are a moralistic charade, that power politics is the only game in town.
In this light, it is extremely significant that Snowden’s famous leak of documents revealing the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program was misinterpreted when it was first disclosed by Greenwald and Barton Gellman of The Washington Post in a way that implied total lawlessness at the NSA. (According to Greenwald’s book on the Snowden leaks, Gellman was put under significant pressure by Snowden to publish before the Post had made the rigorous checks it wanted.) The initial story, as run by both Gellman and Greenwald, claimed that through PRISM, the NSA and FBI had direct access to the servers of the nine leading US Internet companies (Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple). The term “direct access,” implying that these agencies could delve into the companies’ servers at will, with no legal authorization, was inaccurate, and although corrections were published, it created a false impression in the public mind that has never fully dissipated. Snowden himself has never used his platform to correct the error. Charlie Savage covers the episode in the updated edition of his Power Wars: The Relentless Rise of Presidential Authority and Secrecy. His comprehensive history of US government surveillance is not at all reassuring to those concerned about a lack of checks on executive power, but in describing the PRISM program specifically, he acknowledges that it was misunderstood.
The program operated within the existing FISA system and secured cooperation between the Internet companies and the NSA at the point when an individual suspected of involvement in terrorism had been targeted and the NSA wished to retrieve that suspect’s messages from the companies’ servers. Many Americans will still feel that this program constituted an unwarranted breach of privacy, but what PRISM does not do is vindicate the idea of a “deep state” operating entirely independently of the rule of law. Although this might seem like a fine distinction to some, it is an extremely significant one. But the narrative of deep-state lawlessness was too appealing.
Seumas Milne, then a Guardian journalist (now the British Labour Party’s executive director of strategy and communications), wrote an opinion piece on the Snowden leaks that poured scorn on the idea that American and British politicians are in any sense “law-abiding.” “Claims that the intelligence agencies are now subject to genuine accountability, rather than ministerial rubber stamps, secret courts and committees of trusties, have been repeatedly shown to be nonsense,” he said, going on to claim that since democratic institutions had “spectacularly failed to hold US and other Western states’ intelligence and military operations to account,” it had been left to whistleblowers to take on this role, and it was “up to the rest of us to make sure their courage isn’t wasted.” Given his despair of liberal-democratic institutions, that final exhortation seems worryingly open-ended.
Assange’s allies, Milne included, have made clear that their allegiance doesn’t lie with liberal democracies and their values. They have taken sides with authoritarianism in their fight against the hypocrisy of liberal democracies. Milne has been a prominent, expenses-paid guest of Putin’s Valdai discussion club, where Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and other Kremlin insiders meet to discuss Russian foreign policy with invited sympathetic Westerners. Assange, a former libertarian, has called Russia under Putin “a bulwark against Western imperialism.” He has for a long time been the beneficiary of Russian state resources (in 2012, when WikiLeaks ran out of money, the Russian state broadcaster RT hosted The Julian Assange Show, in which he interviewed controversial political figures), while subtly supporting Putin’s foreign policies, particularly in Syria. In 2016, he revealed just how effectively he could help the Kremlin attack US democracy by leaking stolen emails on their behalf in order to help sway the election. Assange has denied that a state was the source, but Justice Department indictments of twelve Russian military intelligence officers have identified an avatar created by the GRU, Guccifer 2.0, as the source.
For his part, Greenwald has repeatedly, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, decried as Russophobia the findings that Putin ordered interference in the 2016 US presidential election—even appearing on Fox News to do so. The very term “Russophobia” obfuscates the distinction between Vladimir Putin’s regime and Russia; the two clearly can’t be identified with one another. If open criticism of Putin by Russians were tolerated, it would presumably be vehement and widespread, as the effort it takes to suppress it—the murder of dissident journalists, the imprisonment, exile, and murder of political opponents and even financial rivals—suggests. In an interview with RT on the occasion of a visit to Snowden in Moscow last year, Greenwald said:
In the United States for a long time this shift has been taking place. Two of the most important protest movements in the US—one was the Tea Party, the other was Occupy Wall Street—were both perceived to be on different ends of the political spectrum. Yet they had very similar issues in common. They were protesting the bailout of Wall Street after the Wall Street crisis, the domination of corporations. When Donald Trump ran for president, even though he was perceived as a right-wing candidate, he did so by criticizing the Iraq war, by criticizing American militarism, by promising to “drain the swamp” of corporate influence.
The distinction between left and right, he argues, will increasingly be replaced by the opposition between people who are pro-establishment and anti-establishment. But being anti-establishment is not a politics. It defends no clear set of values or principles. And it permits prevarication about the essential choice between criticizing and helping to reform liberal democracy from within or assisting in its demise. It encourages its partisans to take sides with a smaller, authoritarian state in order to check the power of the one whose establishment it opposes.
It seems clear that Putin has exploited this fissure in Western values. It wouldn’t take a political genius to manipulate the situation that arose around Snowden. And if Snowden’s supporters, as Poitras claims, didn’t conspire but all kept one another in the dark, how much easier it would have been for Putin to take advantage of them. Snowden himself claims that every decision he made he can defend and that he always acted in the interests of the United States rather than Russia. But the public narrative created around the leaks has served Putin’s purposes. This may have been more valuable to him than the actual intelligence that was disclosed.
Many states, including Russia, immediately used Snowden’s disclosures as justifications for expanding their own surveillance programs as they rushed to catch up with the rapid expansion of America’s cyber-powers. Putin has exploited the PRISM story to foster theories about the “deep state,” claiming that the Internet is “a CIA plot.” It was extremely valuable to him at the time to undercut global trust in the big Silicon Valley media companies that were spreading American soft power around the globe and to defend instead “cyber sovereignty,” or each nation controlling the flow of information within its own territory. Russia has long engaged in information warfare in Ukraine and the Baltic states, as well as at home, and needs to protect its sphere of digital influence, as well as to weaken the global reach of the tech companies that give America so much cyber-power.
And Putin has benefited from the appearance of being Snowden’s protector, presenting himself as a greater champion of freedom than the United States. In their book Red Web: The Kremlin’s War on the Internet, the Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan recounted the experiences of human rights activists who were summoned via an email purportedly from Snowden himself, to a meeting with him at Moscow airport when he surfaced there with Sarah Harrison, to find they were joining the heads of various pro-Kremlin “human rights” groups, Vladimir Lukin, the Putin-appointed Human Rights Commissioner of Russia, and the lawyers Anatoly Kucherena and Henri Reznik. It was clear to the independent activists that Kucherena had organized the meeting. Kucherena is a member of the FSB’s Public Council, an organization that Soldatov and Borogan say was established to promote the image of the Russian security service; he is also the chairman of an organization called the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, which has branches in New York and Paris and was set up at Putin’s personal instigation, the authors tell us, for the purposes of criticizing human rights violations in the United States. This institute publishes an annual report on the state of human rights in the United States. Using misleading moral equivalences to attack American hypocrisy is one of the most common tactics in Putin’s propaganda war.
On the account given by Soldatov and Borogan, Snowden has appeared to cooperate with this strategy, barely deviating from Putin’s information agenda even as Putin has instigated extraordinarily repressive measures to rein in Internet freedoms in Russia. When Snowden agreed, for instance, to appear as a guest questioner on a televised question-and-answer session with Putin, he posed the Russian president a question that heavily criticized surveillance practices in the US and asked Putin if Russia did the same, which gave Putin an opening to assert, completely falsely, that no such indiscriminate surveillance takes place in Russia. Earlier this year, Snowden’s supporters trumpeted a tweet in which he accused the Russian regime of being full of corruption, but Putin himself will use such accusations when he wishes to eliminate undesirable government actors. To be sure, Snowden is in a vulnerable position: he is notably cautious in his wording whenever he speaks publicly, as someone reliant on the protection of Putin might be. But he speaks often, and he uses his platform. So whether we trust him matters. It matters whether we view him as a bad actor, or as a well-intentioned whistleblower who has shown bad judgment, or as someone who has allowed himself to become an unwitting pawn of the Russians.
Snowden understands how information wars work and what’s at stake. In Hong Kong, he told Greenwald and Poitras that he couldn’t trust The New York Times because he had realized that when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wanted to report on the NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping, the paper sat on the story for a year—a decision that Snowden felt affected the outcome of the 2004 election. In the run-up to the 2016 election, he tweeted: “Politics: the art of convincing people to forget the lesser of two evils is also evil.” Three weeks before the election, he tweeted to his millions of followers, “There may never be a safer election in which to vote for a third option,” claiming, bizarrely, to trust the predictions of The New York Times.
Snowden’s tweets and lectures have real-world impact. After his disclosures, Tor’s usership shot up from a million to six million. He repeatedly tweeted to his followers that they should use Tor and Signal. Tor’s default search engine DuckDuckGo, which claims to protect privacy by refraining from the profiling that other browsers do in order to provide personalized searches, saw a 600 percent increase in traffic over just a few months. One of DuckDuckGo’s partners is Yandex, Russia’s government-controlled search engine, although the company says it does not allow the collection or sharing of user data by its partners. Certification by the Snowden brand may well be the chief reason that so much faith is now placed uncritically in these platforms.
In 2016, Snowden became president of an organization called the Freedom of the Press Foundation, an organization set up in 2012 to allow donations to WikiLeaks via Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal when those payment processors had cut off WikiLeaks. Snowden joined its board in 2014, alongside Poitras, Greenwald, and Lee. Snowden’s old friend from Tor, Runa Sandvik, is on their technical advisory board. The FPF continued to support WikiLeaks until early 2018, when the board finally became split over Assange’s views and actions. Since the group was founded, it has used much of its $2 million annual budget to develop encryption software for media outlets. The group’s biggest success has been developing a Tor-based system called SecureDrop, used by The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Washington Post as a means for whistleblowers to submit documents. Given this degree of exposure, we need to consider whether Snowden’s is a brand we can trust.
Snowden claims to have started an important conversation about Internet surveillance in America. President Barack Obama himself has given Snowden credit for enabling this essential public discussion, one that can confer genuine legitimacy on the security measures taken by the state. But such legitimacy is not something Snowden and his allies value or grant. In a 2016 lecture by video-link at Fusion’s Real Future Fair, Snowden discouraged his audience from pursuing the legal and political remedies that liberal democracies offer:
If you want to build a better future, you’re going to have to do it yourself. Politics will take us only so far and if history is any guide, they are the least reliable means of achieving effective change… They’re not gonna jump up and protect your rights. Technology works differently than law. Technology knows no jurisdiction.
If there’s one thing Greenwald, Assange, and their followers got right, it’s that the United States became a tremendous economic and military power over the last seven decades. When it blunders in its foreign or domestic policy, the US has the capacity to do swift and unparalleled damage. The question then is whether this awesome power is better wielded by a liberal-democratic state in an arguably hypocritical way but with some restraint, or by an authoritarian one in a nakedly avowed way and with no restraint. In the five years since Snowden’s revelations, we have seen changes, particularly the election of Donald Trump with his undisguised admiration for strongmen, that compel us to imagine a possible authoritarian future for the United States. Democratic accountability, a system of checks and balances, and the rule of law may be imperfect measures but they look like our best hope for directing the American state’s power to humane ends. Previous failures are not a good reason to give up on this hope. Neither is faith in technology: it is a means; it doesn’t discriminate between ends. Technology is not going to save us. Edward Snowden is not our savior.