WIRED has a new interview with Edward Snowden, conducted over several days in Moscow, which claims to be the most significant media discussion with the world’s most famous IT contractor since he fled to Russia in June of last year. I won’t comment on the magazine cover shot, with Ed wrapped in Old Glory, representing an American super-patriot, which is a rare breed in Putin’s Russia.
The interview was conducted by James Bamford, who is anything but an impartial observer of U.S. intelligence (my views on Bamford have been previously noted here), indeed he admits to feeling kinship with his subject, and it shows. The piece is filled with so many fawning soft-balls and obvious unasked questions that it makes previous media interviews with Ed, which I considered pretty soft-edged, look like interrogations by Stalin’s NKVD.
The piece requires a nearly line-by-line analysis of its numerous misstatements, lies and obfuscations, but I lack the time or inclination for that. Most minds were made up about Snowden months ago, with some people seemingly uninterested in the obvious gaps and problems in Ed’s Official Narrative; regrettably more than a few of these people are in the tech industry, and the WIRED piece is aimed right at them.
That said, there are a few points that need to be addressed, In the first place, up front Bamford makes clear that his subject is not in bed with the Russians, despite the fact that he’s just received a three-year residence permit to remain there:
When Snowden fled to Russia after stealing the largest cache of secrets in American history, some in Washington accused him of being another link in this chain of Russian agents. But as far as I can tell, it is a charge with no valid evidence.
This begs the question: How far can Bamford actually tell? How informed is our interviewer about the methods of the FSB, Russia’s primary security agency? Since Bamford places this statement early in his interview, preemptively, one wonders what he thinks would constitute “valid evidence” of Ed’s cooperation with the Russian security services. A press release from FSB headquarters?
As I’ve said before, whether Ed was cooperating with the Russians before he reached Moscow is a debatable question, but his status with the FSB now is not actually an open matter, as everyone who understands Russian intelligence knows. Bamford believes his subject is the first Western intelligence defector to Russia ever not to cooperate with the Kremlin’s secret services, and that is his right. It is also everyone else’s right to point out this claim is ridiculous.
Without irony, a few paragraphs later, Bamford notes that “Snowden’s handlers repeatedly warned me that, even switched off, a cell phone can easily be turned into an NSA microphone.” Who exactly are these mysterious “handlers”? Bamford does not tell us. Did he even ask?
Anatoliy Kucherena, Ed’s Russian lawyer, a man with extensive FSB connections, recently told the media that his client does not enjoy official Kremlin protection. Rather his security is handled by unnamed private security experts. Paid for by whom, Kucherena did not clarify. Relatedly, Bamford observes that Ed, despite a lack of funds, is doing well in his new home, which is an upgrade from his native country: “He has learned to live modestly in an expensive city that is cleaner than New York and more sophisticated than Washington.” Since Ed clearly isn’t footing the bill for his 24/7 security — the interview demonstrates that Snowden lives in constant fear of abduction by American intelligence, even in his undisclosed Russian home — who is? That, like so many things, Bamford does not ask or explain.
The interview brims with many strange and unsupported statements that portray Ed as a 21st century martyr who has offered himself as a sacrifice for America’s myriad sins against the planet. If you like this kind of thing, you like this kind of thing. Ed explains at length how easy it was for him to steal all those classified materials from the stupid NSA, and still the stupid NSA can’t figure out exactly what he did, despite Snowden’s charitably leaving behind clues, he says, to assist their investigation. If you prefer your narcissism unadulterated, this is the interview for you.
There is, however, one substantive issue in the piece that needs to be discussed. Towards the end, Bamford dramatically explains how it was that his subject decided that he had crossed the Rubicon, while in a secret NSA facility buried deep under a pineapple plantation in Hawaii:
On March 13, 2013, sitting at his desk in the “tunnel” surrounded by computer screens, Snowden read a news story that convinced him that the time had come to act. It was an account of director of national intelligence James Clapper telling a Senate committee that the NSA does “not wittingly” collect information on millions of Americans. “I think I was reading it in the paper the next day, talking to coworkers, saying, can you believe this shit?”
Snowden and his colleagues had discussed the routine deception around the breadth of the NSA’s spying many times, so it wasn’t surprising to him when they had little reaction to Clapper’s testimony. “It was more of just acceptance,” he says, calling it “the banality of evil”—a reference to Hannah Arendt’s study of bureaucrats in Nazi Germany.
I won’t even address the Obama’s-America-as-Hitler’s-Germany trope, which is exactly the sort of nonsense you’d expect from a half-educated and self-important auto-didact like Snowden. To be clear, Ed now says it was Clapper’s testimony of March 13, 2013 (“the time had come to act”) that caused him to go rogue and flee Hawaii on the lam two months later with all those classified documents, after releasing them to members of the media.
Wait. Wait one minute.
In the first place, it’s impossible to imagine that even self-proclaimed master-hacker Edward Snowden managed to steal 1.5 million classified documents off NSA servers in just a few weeks (although Ed denies the number is that large, he does not refute that the haul was indeed vast).
More important, Glenn Greenwald, Ed’s partner in the operation, recently admitted that he was in contact with Snowden long before Ed’s alleged awakening and decision to go rogue. In Glenn’s words: “[Ed] first tried to contact me — or did contact me back in December of 2012, when he sent me an anonymous email.”
Are we really expected to believe that Ed began stealing thousands of classified documents, then reached out to Glenn Greenwald, one of the most vehemently anti-American commentators anywhere — just, well, because — but it was Clapper’s comments a few months later that convinced Ed to do something seriously wrong?
At this point, the players in the Snowden Operation cannot even keep their basic stories straight. This is aided by certain members of the media who refuse to ask obvious questions about the case, as here. The Bamford interview is nice if you want to feel good about Snowden and what he’s done, but as an effort to record what actually happened it’s unreliable. All propaganda is.