The Snowden Affair: Winners and Losers

Daryl Copeland draws up a preliminary ledger.
By: /
July 19, 2013
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Ed Snowden, the U.S. citizen and cyber-surveillance whistle-blower, has been somewhere in the transit area of Moscow’s labyrinthine Sheremetyevo International Airport for almost one month. His disclosure of documents detailing mass telephone and internet monitoring by U.S., U.K., N.Z., Australian, and French intelligence agencies, often with active private sector collusion, has resulted in him being proclaimed a hero in some quarters, and a traitor in others.

The U.S. government has charged him with the theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified intelligence to unauthorized persons. They are seeking his extradition, and have criticized the governments of Russia and China for their failure to cooperate. Washington appears intent on sparing no effort in its attempt to ensure that Snowden’s fate resembles something closer to that of Bradley Manning than that of Julian Assange.  

Stuck in a legal and immigration netherworld with time on his hands and no obvious way to take up offers of asylum received from Venezuela, Ecuador, or Nicaragua, Mr. Snowden may be reflecting on the implications of his decisions.

Russia would not likely have been his first choice as a safe harbour, even if short term. Certainly, the signals from his hosts have been mixed. President Putin, for instance, famously remarked that while he was in principle supportive, he would “...rather not deal with such questions, because anyway it's like shearing a pig – lots of screams but little wool." The Russian leader has acknowledged that Snowden has requested temporary asylum, but has attached strict conditions to the consideration of the application.

What, then, to make of it all? The construction of a very preliminary ledger yields a mixed picture.

Among the possible winners:

The public interest. By illuminating the extent of state-sponsored cyberspying directed at both domestic and foreign targets, Snowden’s disclosures have set the stage for possible remedial action in the U.S. Congress or elsewhere. Moreover, subsequent reporting has provided crucial information regarding the actions of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose classified rulings vested the National Security Agency with sweeping new powers.  These revelations, and those which will undoubtedly follow, can only encourage debate on the growing tension between divergent public policy objectives. While it will not be easy, the search for a more judicious balance between the competing imperatives of information privacy and individual rights on the one hand, versus national security and counter-terrorism on the other, is long overdue.  

Russia. This country does not enjoy a reputation as a beacon for free expression or the defence of human rights. In fact, quite apart from systematically cracking down on any organized political opposition, Russia is better known as a source of computer hacking, identity theft, and a variety of other Internet-based scams. Given the reported extent of Snowden’s electronic cache, the FSB can be expected to take an active interest in his stay. Snowden’s arrival, however, is a also prestige booster eerily evocative of Cold War escapades. Although Russian authorities prevaricate and are walking a fine line, having the opportunity to defend and provide sanctuary for Snowden under current circumstances has presented them with a significant propaganda coup.

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. This incident came along just in time to thrust the organization and  its publicity-friendly founder back into the limelight. Although there are grounds to question some of the accolades frequently showered upon Mr. Assange, by providing legal assistance and championing Snowden’s cause the media profile of WikiLeaks has been elevated and Mr. Assange has again reminded the world of his own predicament.

The losers?

Brand America. The global image and reputation of the USA as a bastion of democracy and civil liberties, already under considerable downward pressure in the wake of excesses associated with the Global War on Terror, will inevitably suffer. To be sure, the sources of America’s soft power are many and varied. But for a country which prides itself on open government, due process, constitutional guarantees, and respect for the rule of law, the exposure of massive and secret spying on citizens at home and governments abroad can only hurt.

U.S. foreign policy. The targeting of foreign governments and international organizations by the NSA may be unsurprising, but having the details appear on front pages world-wide  makes for rough diplomatic sailing. Equally damaging, under the rubric of 21st Century Statecraft one of the principal objectives of U.S. international policy in recent years has been the promotion of internet freedom, access, and openness. The credibility of American advocacy related to those themes, already strained, has now been shredded. All told, this debilitating widening of the “say-do gap” can only make matters worse for the world’s struggling superpower. 

Corporate collaborators. Some very prominent members of the digital business aristocracy have been implicated directly by Mr. Snowden  as complicit in the scandal. Despite spirited denials, if these allegations are borne out then Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, and a number of major telecommunications companies, including Verizon and Telstra, will have a lot of explaining to do.

Ed Snowden.  Whatever the ethical and moral satisfaction associated with his chosen course, Mr. Snowden remains in a very tight spot, with no immediate end in sight. Only 30, and with the full coercive weight of the American state bearing down, he must feel vulnerable and exposed. Even if he lands lucrative book and film deals, the prospect of life on the run, or of permanent exile cannot be very appealing.

Final thoughts?

Like the pioneering Mr. Assange, Mr. Snowden has successfully used technology to attain instant celebrity, and his actions have influenced international relations in a fashion which would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.

For both men, however, the personal costs attached to this formula for individual self-empowerment have been extreme.