The Evolution of Edward Snowden

In the last month, the Guardian has published one revelation after another about the NSA and the staggering and unprecedented ways that it surveils Americans (and literally everyone else). One of the most frustrating and predictable things about the response to these revelations has been the concerted effort to shift the focus from the substance of the revelations to psychological speculation about Edward Snowden. The dominant narrative in this regard is that Snowden is a “narcissist,” a bizarre claim about a man whose first public statement included “I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who watches what’s happening and goes, ‘the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.'” This speculation is usually baseless and counterproductive, and human motivation is an infinitely complex thing, but this week the Washington Post revealed an aspect of Snowden’s inner life that is consequential and revealing.

Ed Snowden has portrayed government secrecy as a threat to democracy, and his own leaks as acts of conscience. But chat logs uncovered by the tech news site Ars Technica suggest Snowden hasn’t always felt that way.

“Those people should be shot in the balls,” Snowden apparently said of leakers in a January 2009 chat. He said he enjoyed “ethical reporting.” But “VIOLATING NATIONAL SECURITY? no. That s— is classified for a reason.”

“I am so angry right now. This is completely unbelievable.”

It’s interesting that Snowden was evidently virulently anti-leaks a mere 4 years ago. Working in the bowels of the surveillance state, seeing exactly what kind of powers the government is exercising over us, produced a radical shift in him.

It’s very reminiscent of numerous instances that the public has learned about over the last decade. In 2004, very senior members of the Bush administration, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI director Robert Mueller, deputy AG James Comey, and other DoJ officials threatened to resign en masse in protest of NSA spying. Bush was able to avoid a modern Saturday Night Massacre only by agreeing to greater oversight from Justice. This decision to rein in the NSA happened only after the infamous standoff by Ashcroft’s hospital bed, when Alberto Gonzalez and Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card tried to take advantage of the barely-conscious Attorney General. The incident reveals, amongst other things, that the NSA was engaged in domestic spying that was even more illegal than its current incarnation.

More recently, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) have been warning the American people that we would be “shocked” to learn how the government is secretly interpreting the Patriot Act and surveilling us. To the degree that the NSA’s behavior comports with the “law,” Wyden & Udall indicate, it is a set of secret laws, approved of and overseen by anonymous Executive Branch lawyers, not Congress. Those elected representatives who’re nominally responsible for ensuring the Constitutionality of the War on Terror are either openly lied to by the intelligence community or more interested in protecting that community from oversight. NSA whistleblowers have resigned, been prosecuted, and had their lives ruined based on their principled stands.

The NSA's new data collection center in Utah will store more data than any other place on Earth. Now seeking applicants with "rational fear of domestic national security threats."

The NSA’s new data collection center in Utah will store more data than any other place on Earth. Now seeking applicants with “rational fear of domestic national security threats.”

What Edward Snowden has in common with those Bush administration officials, Senators Wyden & Udall, and those whistleblowers is that he saw what the government is doing to the American people behind closed doors and was repulsed by it. In the last decade, Americans have only rarely stolen a peek behind the curtain. What we’d learned prior to these Guardian revelations was cause enough for alarm. We knew that the NSA was building a facility in Utah capable of handling yottabytes (yotta – 10 to the 24th power) of data. We learned that what journalist Dana Priest calls Top Secret America has grown so big that its size is literally incalculable. And, while Shia LaBoeuf was promoting the movie Eagle Eye, we learned that shady G-men can pull up years-old phone calls made by A-listers.

In 2004, our government’s domestic spying is so extreme that even a neocon ideologue like John Ashcroft was willing to threaten his President’s re-election to challenge it. By 2012, Thomas Drake had gone from a decades-long career serving his country to working in an Apple store. In 2013, Edward Snowden sacrificed his $120k/year salary and life in Hawaii for permanent exile and the possibility of harsh prosecution; even torture.

It speaks volumes that many people who see the full picture of what our government does in the dark are so profoundly affected by it. If we’re going to ask questions about Ed Snowden’s motivation they should be what would compel someone to leave a life of great comfort and risk their freedom? How egregious must our government’s action be that someone who thinks leakers should be ‘shot in the balls’ ends up becoming one of those people?