07/02/2013 02:21 pm ET

So What If Edward Snowden Isn't Your Unicorn?


As National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden continues his stay in the limbo of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, while officials at WikiLeaks continue to sort out his narrowing asylum options, there has been a resurgence in generic Snowden criticism. Most of the criticism, however, has little to do with the content of Snowden's disclosures -- there, public opinion is rather divided. Instead, there is a persistent critique of Snowden that's primarily based upon where he has traveled and where he might end up in the end. It's all a bit shortsighted, in terms of logic. It's also largely irrelevant.

First, here's where public opinion currently stands on the matter. The Pew Center for the People and the Press conducted a survey back on June 17, which found that a majority of those surveyed -- 54 percent to 28 percent -- believe that Snowden should be criminally prosecuted. This is relatively uncontroversial, as Snowden arguably violated criminal statutes in leaking information about the NSA to the public, through journalists.

Once the public starts considering the content of Snowden's disclosures, however, it gets complicated. By a 49 percent to 44 percent margin, those surveyed believe that the disclosures served the public interest. (Those under 30 express support for the idea that the public interest was served by a 60 percent to 34 percent margin.) Snowden's leaks garner significantly more support than the 2010 WikiLeaks disclosures, which only 29 percent of those surveyed thought served the public. Finally, those surveyed said that they "would feel violated" if the government had collected their personal data, by a 63 percent to 36 percent margin.

This isn't blanket condemnation of the NSA's programs by any means -- those surveyed support the NSA by a 48 percent to 47 percent sliver. Laid on the table, these results suggest that the public is largely interested in the content of the disclosures, if not Snowden himself, and appear more or less open to a public debate on the matter. The public, in this regard, seems pretty sensible.

Thought-havers in the media, on the other hand, are still a bit constipated, in that they seem to think that the straits in which Snowden has found himself are ironic. Here's Jonathan Capehart in The Washington Post, straining a bit too much to contend that Snowden is a different human being from Daniel Ellsberg:

I'm all for whistleblowers revealing what government is doing, especially if it stretches the bounds of legality or if it's flat-out illegal. What we know of what Snowden has released of interest to the American public has been known for a while. But what has stuck in my craw from the outset was Snowden fleeing the country.

Snowden earned side eyes from me with his decision to hightail it to Hong Kong (read, China). Then he bolted for Moscow. For a man trying to win public opinion against what he called the vast and illegal overreach of the National Security Agency, heading to Russia wasn't exactly a smart P.R. move. That nation and Russian President Vladimir Putin aren't exactly this nation’s best friend. Heck, they barely rise to the level of "frenemy."

I think it's completely fair to say that if Snowden really believed that Hong Kong was some haven for human rights, he was laboring under some significant misperceptions. On the other hand, I think it's possible that Snowden may have said those things about Hong Kong without actually meaning them. Suffice it to say, however, Hong Kong served its purpose, as a venue to make the initial disclosures. (Now, of course, he's stuck.)

But Capehart makes a lot of assumptions here that either don't seem too relevant or for which evidence does not exist. There's no evidence, anywhere, that suggests that Snowden ever intended to "win public opinion" for himself. Perhaps we should proceed, logically, from the standpoint that hightailing it to Hong Kong in the first place was as clear a sign as any that Snowden didn't hold out much hope that people would think he was some kind of great guy. Similarly, it's a bit obtuse to suggest that going to Russia was some sort of "P.R. move."

Let's not mistake Snowden for some typical Washington critter, for whom "messaging" and "P.R." is of paramount importance. The game right now, for Snowden, is simply to avoid extradition to the United States. It would be lovely, from Snowden's perspective, if there was some democratic paradise, where personal liberty was enshrined as a sacred trust and human rights were a paramount concern, that offered Snowden shelter. But Snowden's options are limited. One option, for the time being, is Sheremetyevo International Airport. This should not be read as some sort of endorsement of the Sheremetyevo International Airport, or Russia.

I think that one of the underlying assumptions here is that it's ironic that Snowden is not having a particularly good time of it right now, because surely he was playing some sort of "angle" for fame or personal gain. There's actually no evidence that Snowden thought that his life post-disclosure was going to be anything other than trouble. I think that we're just so soaked in the fame-whore culture that we jump to these assumptions too readily. This is better seen as an indictment of a whole bunch of other people not named Edward Snowden.

(Capehart also seems to believe that what Snowden has disclosed "has been known for a while," which is a cloud-fallacy among pundits, who confuse "always assuming that the NSA was up to this stuff" with knowing about it. Again, simple logic dictates that if Snowden had actually, literally, revealed things that were already widely known, there would not be this current hullabaloo over extraditing him.)

So how do you solve a problem like your complicated feelings about Edward Snowden? I rather think BuzzFeed's Ben Smith neatly nailed this a few weeks ago, when he pointed out that no one was under any obligation to like Snowden, personally, at all, because even if the worst assumptions about Snowden's character are true, that wouldn't really differentiate him substantially from any other source of any other story:

Snowden is what used to be known as a source. And reporters don't, and shouldn't, spend too much time thinking about the moral status of their sources. Sources sometimes act from the best of motives -- a belief that readers should know something is amiss, or a simple desire to see a good story told. They also often act from motives far more straightforwardly venal than anything [that] has been suggested of Snowden: They want to screw someone who is in their way professionally; they want to score an ideological point by revealing a personal misdeed; they are acting on an old grudge, and serving revenge cold; they are collecting chits with the press to be cashed in later.

When these sources are anonymous or -- in the case of earlier NSA sources -- gray men whose stories haven't captured the public imagination, nobody much cares. The Nixon Administration's campaign to smear reporters' Vietnam source, Daniel Ellsberg, is remembered only for having happened. When you learn decades later that the most famous anonymous source in American history -- Deep Throat -- was an unappealing figure fighting a bureaucratic civil war, that's a mildly interesting footnote. The criminality he unearthed was interesting; Mark Felt wasn't really. Who cares?

I'm not sure Smith left anyone on base there, but here's Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway batting clean up anyway:

Snowden's back story is irrelevant to the importance of the information he made public, and you don't really need to care about his motives to engage in the debate over liberty versus security that these revelations ought to be creating. None of that requires that we agree with what Snowden has done, are troubled by his actions since making the information public, or even that we like him personally based on the limited things we know about him. He's not really relevant any more than the identity of the leaker of the Pentagon Papers was or the fact that Mark Felt was "Deep Throat," and that part of his motivation for leaking was due to inter-agency battles in the Nixon Administration. They’re not the story.

The good news, then, is that no matter where you stand on the NSA's surveillance program, you don't actually have to invite Edward Snowden to your New Year's Eve party or make him the godfather of your next child. He's just the source of a story. And I assure you, if you read any political reporting at all, you are already likely steeped in journalism that's underpinned by sources who are some of the most reprehensible and unlikable people in America, giddily giving up the goods for all the mean-minded reasons Ben Smith cites. Those who are clutching their pearls over this as if it's not something they encounter every single day without commenting on should just calm down.

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