What a story this is. Ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden, on the run following his revelations of secret surveillance programs rather chilling in their incredible reach and scale, seemingly disappears in Moscow en route from Hong Kong to a hoped for Latin American haven. Beset on all sides by great powers, sophisticated operators, and clashing agendas, Snowden, like his perhaps new Wikileaks patron Julian Assange before him, seems like a character in a cyberpunk novel.
Not that those usually ended all that well.
And what is Snowden up to?
He told the South China Morning Post, in an interview just published, that he took the job at NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to collect more information on the NSA's surveillance programs. Part of what he's revealed indicates massive U.S. hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong and mainland China. There's more where that came from.
That's not necessarily inconsistent with the highly motivated whistleblower he claims to be. But it does give fuel to those who want nothing better than for him to turn out to be a spy.
I have no special knowledge about this and am always open to new information. But unless this is an especially elaborate ruse, Snowden looks like what he says he is, a person of good will revealing what he believes to be a massive threat to privacy and liberty.
His escape route is unfortunate in that he is now more easily painted in a certain ideological/political way. But perhaps not surprising, since he is up against major forces and requires the assistance of some countervailing forces to continue.
The danger for him is at least twofold. One, of course, from the U.S. government and its associates. The other is from losing whatever "Edward Snowden" there is to Edward Snowden and getting ground up in a struggle between very large forces seeking to rein in or take advantage of new dynamics set in motion by the Snowden revelations.
The new dynamics are becoming apparent.
Xinhua, the official press agency of China, issued another commentary on the Snowden affair over the weekend. The revelations, Xinhua says, "demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age."
Meanwhile, state broadcaster Russia Today runs commentary saying "the Snowden case shows the U.S. is the bully boy of the world."
The U.S.-China summit earlier this month in California between Presidents Obama and Xi was heavily shadowed at the time by Xi's knowledge of Snowden's revelations and his whereabouts in Hong Kong, as I noted in this piece. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Obama had a tellingly bad encounter four years ago in the days when the Obama Administration chatted up Putin protege Dmitry Medvedev and imagined that Putin wasn't the ultimate power in Moscow, as I reported here at the time, is undoubtedly delighted to be heightening Obama's embarrassment in the Snowden affair.
The two countries, and many more besides, are happy to find a new means of reining in the lone superpower.
Of course, there is such a thing as too much power. And there is such a thing as too indiscriminate a use of power.
Obama, in many ways an admirable president, has shown a tendency in his secret moves to err on the side of going too far. Unlike in his public moves, where he is, with the exception of the massive escalation in Afghanistan, usually stinting on his interventionism. (See Libyan civil war.)
The drone strike program, which should be used only to get at verified threats to attack America or Americans, escalated, according to many reports, into something which kills those who have a jihadist ideology, along with those unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity.
Incredibly powerful surveillance technologies are used, not to zero in on suspected terrorists but to siphon up private information about everyone.
In the end, the surveillance agencies may be hoist by their own petard.
In relying on massively technical means of intelligence gathering, sweeping up far more data than they know how to process -- hello Boston Marathon -- the agencies rely on those who can run the systems. Which places them at the mercy of young techno-savvy types who come out of a culture which tends to prize individuality and values techno-babble rather than political mumbo-jumbo.
All it takes, as we see with Snowden and as we saw earlier with Bradley Manning, who was a lowly private in the Army, is one among the many who have the technical access and expertise who decides that enough is enough.
Can we run a government without secrets? If we keep on this path of ever expansive systems maintained by a new generation of cyber-nerds, perhaps we will find out.
Or we could rethink what we are doing.
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