Thursday, January 16, 2014

Edward Snowden and the Irony of Leaking

When I first heard that Edward Snowden, the National Security Leaker, was holed up in a capsule hotel in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo 2 airport, I allowed myself a dark chuckle. What a terrible place to land in on a flight to freedom!
Flying in and out of that airport in the 1990s and early 2000s was a grim enough experience. But to actually live in that post-apocalyptic scab pile, drowning in the murk, wading through the miasma of hostility, now that is a cruel and unusual punishment. Sheremetyevo 2 was so unwelcoming I always thought it must be intentional, a warning to visitors: “Yeah, this is Russia. We don’t care what you think. Get used to it.”

But then I saw footage on TV and I remembered that they gave it a cosmetic overhaul a few years ago. The shabby brown exterior still exudes Brezhnev-era stagnation, but on the inside Sheremetyevo more or less resembles a functioning modern airport. It is almost as good as Moscow’s other major airport, Domodedevo, although nowhere near as good as a proper airport, like Amsterdam’s Schipol.
In spite of these improvements, I still don’t envy Mr. Snowden as he lies huddled in his circular sleeping-coffin, trembling in terror as he contemplates his fate. All weekend, important people in the US vented their fury about him, uttering dark threats against any countries that might help him evade their justice. For instance Chuck Schumer, a senator from New York, muttered that Moscow would face “serious consequences” if the Russians didn’t hand Snowden over. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of what these might be; but if Schumer had been talking about me I would have been very nervous indeed.
Obviously nobody in the Russian government could think of any serious consequences either as yesterday Vladimir Putin seized the opportunity at a press conference in Finland to have a little fun at Washington’s expense, pleading helplessness.  “Thank God, Mr. Snowden committed no crimes on the territory of the Russian Federation” he said. “He is free to leave…” I wasn’t entirely convinced by this; if an al-Qaeda mass killer was chilling in a capsule hotel in Sheremetyevo 2, something tells me the FSB would be in there pronto.
Was anybody surprised, though? Putin is motivated by one question, and one question alone in foreign affairs: what advances Russia’s interests?
Handing over a man carrying lots of information about America’s spy programs does not. And as time has shown over and over again, poking America in the eye does.
The governments of China and Russia both get highly irritated whenever they are lectured by the US about freedom, and this was the perfect opportunity for both countries to throw some of that back in Washington’s face. It was a gift too good for either country to miss.
But Mr. Snowden would be extremely naïve to think that anybody in the Russian government cares about his fate. Very soon he shall be given his marching orders. Maybe Moscow is dragging it out a little, to allow Ecuador time to give Snowden a passport to replace the American one that was revoked. If and when he gets it, he can leave for an exciting new life near those big turtles on the Galapagos Islands!
Much has already been said about Snowden’s attempted flight to Ecuador, of course. Most of it is rubbish. “Snowden is a coward, Snowden undermined his cause, Snowden is fleeing to countries that are less free than the United States, etc.” No: Snowden is sane. Like all of us, he would prefer not to spend the next 30 years of his life rotting in an American prison, especially as he does not seem to think he has done anything wrong. He acted out of love for his country.
I myself am inclined to think that Mr. Snowden has done us a favor by revealing the extent of the government’s snooping. I am skeptical of claims that this level of surveillance is necessary for security, as it plainly did nothing to stop the Fort Hood shooter, or the Boston bombers who were overt fanatics, and not particularly clever ones. “Safety” was the justification used for the terror in French Revolution. “Safety” can be invoked for many horrible things.
I could be wrong. Maybe Snowden really has exposed Americans to great risks. But even then, there is still an upside: he has revealed the epic incompetence at the heart of America’s security services. They were the ones who gave this weedy space cadet such high level clearance, after all.
In fact, the only thing I am really sure about is that, when it comes to leaks, irony abounds. The Russians and the Chinese and the Cubans relish the irony of protecting a dissident from the US, the self-proclaimed champion of human rights. Snowden hopes to escape to a country less free than the one he betrayed in the name of freedom. And let us not forget the master-leaker, Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who entered the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid being sent to prison, and now lives in what is, essentially, a prison.
After a year of seeing his pasty face around their offices every day, I cannot imagine how much those diplomats must hate him. Those whom the gods would destroy…