What Future Leakers Can Learn from Snowden


Edward Snowden’s leak of top-secret information on the NSA was undoubtedly an act of extreme bravery, which has already brought more transparency to our government. For this we should all be thankful for his sacrifice. Unfortunately, Snowden has made mistakes that have damaged his ability to avoid extradition to the U.S., and future leakers would do well to learn from Snowden’s missteps.

Snowden’s mistakes are due to some fundamental misunderstandings. One of the things Snowden doesn’t understand is how government transparency fits into democracy.

It should be obvious that if people are going to be in control of their government, then people will have to know what it is their government is doing. Yet in Snowden’s interview with Glenn Greenwald he states the reason he revealed his name is because:

“I think the public is owed an explanation of the motivations [of ] the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you subvert the power of government that is a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy”

Snowden is right that leaking is outside of what’s called the “democratic model”, namely the government, but polls show that most Americans “see their leaders in Washington as overpaid agents of wealthy individuals and corporations who are largely disconnected from the concerns of average Americans.”

Snowden demonstrates that he believes that exposing a government’s lies and forcing its actions to be known to the public are dangerous to democracy, but this the opposite of true. The burden of proof is on the government to demonstrate that something should be hidden from the public. Secrecy is not a right of government by assumption. Noam Chomsky makes another important point about government secrecy. He states:

“If you look at the record of declassified documents, they are mostly concerned with keeping what the government does secret from its own population. It’s mostly defense of the power system from its own population. Very little is authentic security.”

Snowden’s mistaken notion that leaks threaten democracy is part of the reason he felt the need to out himself to the world. I believe Snowden should have taken one of two options, which would have put him in a much better position.

His first option would be to leak to Wikileaks. Wikileaks requires that their organization doesn’t know the identity of their source, and they use Tor encryption that basically guarantees anonymity online. This would have protected Snowden’s safety, and made it unnecessary for him to become a martyr.

Snowden went to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald rather than Wikileaks because he trusted them and trusted their judgment about what should remain private. Yet Greenwald made a number of mistakes throughout the leak and Poitras’ Washington Post contact, Barton Gellman, refused to guarantee to publish all PRISM slides. In fact, both The Guardian and The Washington Post published only 5 of 41 slides on the PRISM leak.

Wikileaks, on the other hand, would have been much more likely to publish all the slides.  This is because the organization is not constrained by the same forces as the traditional media. Here Snowden’s choice of where to leak his information undercut his own goal of government transparency.

Snowden’s second option would be to go some place safe, leak the documents, and release his name if he feels he is ethically obligated to do so. Unfortunately, Hong Kong may not be a safe place for Snowden. Despite Chinese state-backed media voicing some support for Snowden, the case will likely be handled through the Hong Kong court system.  In fact, sources as varied as Peter Bouckaert from Human Rights Watch, to Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor Law Yuk-kai, to Michele Martinez Campbell, a former U.S. federal prosecutor, to Kevin Egan, a lawyer who deals with extradition cases in Hong Kong, all state Snowden will probably not be safe in Hong Kong

Snowden states, “People who think I made a mistake in picking Hong Kong misunderstand my intentions. I’m not here [in Hong Kong] to hide from justice; I’m here to reveal criminality.”

Yet simply because something has been decided on by a court does not mean that justice has been done. There are innumerable unjust laws in countless countries, and it is profoundly unjust for someone who reveals criminal behavior to be declared a criminal as punishment. This is true regardless of whether or not this is done by a court or any other institution.

If Snowden believes he’s done nothing wrong as he has said, then he shouldn’t put himself at the mercy of a legal system that will likely extradite him. He should have gone to a place that would allow him to live life without punishment for his actions.  There is no reason why Snowden couldn’t “reveal criminality” from some place safer.

There are a number of places that may have been better choices: Russia, France, Iceland, Venezuela, or Ecuador, which granted Julian Assange asylum. The Pink Tide governments of Latin America are somewhat antagonistic with the U.S. and would likely be Snowden’s best bet. In fact, even Syrian president Bashar Assad was considering trying to receive amnesty in Latin America should he be forced out of Syria.

I draw attention to the mistakes that Snowden has made not to try to convince people that he’s not a hero, or that he’s not smart, but to remind us that when he decided to leak this information he most likely did it totally alone. It would have been very dangerous to contact anyone for advice. This fact pared with his serious misunderstandings lead to severe mistakes.

We’re all indebted to leakers for putting their lives on the line to empower us with the ability to better understand centers of power. But leakers shouldn’t have to choose between accepting the criminal actions of their government, or leaking the information and having their lives destroyed. The safer it is to leak, then the more people will be willing to leak information. It’s the job of the left in the U.S. to try to build a movement that can protect leakers and sway public opinion in their favor.

I truly hope Snowden doesn’t end up like Bradley Manning, but because of how he leaked his information he is in serious danger. It’s important to remember there are ways that people can get away with leaking. Bradley Manning only got caught because he talked about his disclosures to a “friend” online who later sold him out. I hope a great deal more information is leaked soon and that the next leaker realizes Snowden’s mistakes and doesn’t repeat them.

Paul Gottinger is a writer from Madison, WI where he edits the left issues journal whiterosereader.org.  He can be reached at paul.gottinger@gmail.com


Paul Gottinger is a journalist based in Madison, WI whose work focuses on the Middle East. He can be reached via Twitter @paulgottinger or email: paul.gottinger@gmail.com

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