Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA material was not well executed. One of several mistakes was that he sought refuge in Hong Kong, which, as the Times argues, “is likely to extradite leaker if U.S. asks”. And it’s not as though there weren’t alternatives: Snowden could’ve fled to Latin America, which is exactly where Julian Assange “strongly advise[s] him to go”. As Assange put it, “Latin America has shown in the past 10 years that it is really pushing forward in human rights. There’s a long tradition of asylum.” Assange is presently being given political asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London.
It’s also puzzling that one of the journalists whom Snowden contacted about the leak, Glenn Greenwald, did not advise Snowden to forgo Hong Kong in favor of Latin America. Greenwald is a former civil rights litigator turned journalist who writes helpfully and knowledgeably about civil liberties: he can’t plausibly claim ignorance about the fact that Hong Kong typically cooperates with U.S. extradition requests. Having by his own account corresponded with Snowden “since February”, this would’ve given Greenwald plenty of time to research the likelihood that Hong Kong would grant Snowden political asylum. Greenwald even notes that he was “working with” Snowden “long before anyone spoke to Bart Gellman,” the only other journalist with whom Snowden corresponded. So Greenwald was not short on time to research potential safe havens for Snowden.
Snowden even informed Greenwald of his intentions to flee the country: as Greenwald recalled, “He sort of said, ‘My plan is, at some point, go somewhere far away, and I want you to come there and interview me.’” Then would’ve been a good time to exercise some journalistic ethics and see to it that his source would be going to a safe place. Having failed that, he complied with Snowden’s request to publish his name. Now Snowden is in a country that’s likely to extradite him, and he can’t fly somewhere else because the world knows who and where he is.
When Snowden first contacted Greenwald, Snowden reasonably requested that they communicate using encryption. Greenwald replied that he didn’t have encryption software. Snowden graciously sent him a homemade video with instructions on how to install such software, which Greenwald never completed. Irritated, Snowden then moved on to a filmmaker, Laura Poitras, who, when asked if she gets a lot of requests to communicate via encrypted methods, said “No, I don’t.” Presumably neither does Greenwald, which makes it all the more baffling that he didn’t bother to install encryption software per the directions he was so helpfully given.
To be fair, The Guardian is hardly unique in its failure to equip its journalists with encryption software or even knowledge about such tools. As Forbes columnist Andy Greenberg helpfully explains in his recent book, “This Machine Kills Secrets”, most if not all of the mainstream media fail to have adequate encryption software with which to communicate with potential sources. In most cases, either encryption software is installed lazily—riddled with security holes—or it isn’t installed at all. In contrast, Wikileaks features excellent encryption software along with protocols that very meaningfully protect leakers’ anonymity. As perplexing as Snowden’s choice of refuge is, so too was his choice to submit his leak to The Guardian instead of Wikileaks. It’s worth noting that Bradley Manning was caught because of human rather than technological failure. Manning confided his leak in a friend who would later give him the Judas treatment. Wikileaks’ software, based in large part on the Tor anonymity engine, succeeded in concealing Manning’s identity.
Barton Gellman, who scooped Greenwald by about twenty minutes, had an interesting explanation for why he decided to publish the story when he did. Though he “would have been happier to have had a day or two” on the story, he “started to hear some footsteps, so I had to move.” The cynicism is astonishing. God forbid The Guardian should beat Gellman to the story by 30 minutes or so. If only Gellman’s concern over being the first to break the story was matched by his concern for the source’s safety; Snowden then might not be facing likely extradition, as he is now. When sources are regarded as merely opportunities for career advancement, it’s no wonder there aren’t more people leaking to the press.
It’s unclear to me which is the greater threat to freedom of the press: cyber surveillance or journalists’ vainglory.
Ken Klippenstein lives in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, where he edits the left issues journal, whiterosereader.org He can be reached at Reader246@gmail.com