Anti-authoritarian data leaker Edward Snowden is officially seeking the warm embrace of Russia, a country known for disappearing journalists and running a propaganda arm in the guise of a public media station. He’s also deliberately withheld the most damning information about how the National Security Agency actually operates. Yet, even if Snowden joined the Russian KGB, his exposé of highly controversial U.S. spying programs would be just as valuable.
The value for civil liberties does not rise and fall with the behavior of a 29-year-old fugitive. Edward Snowden, the man, doesn’t matter, because the debate over government spying is about an idea, not a personality.
The Case Against Snowden
“My tolerance for Edward Snowden has run out,” declared Kurt Eichenwald in Vanity Fair. “A man outraged by American surveillance and who advocates free expression toddles happily to Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China? Then off to Moscow? Then tries for Ecuador (and, in some accounts, Cuba)?”
To escape from U.S. extradition, Snowden has sought protection from countries that are arguably far worse violators of freedom than the United States. As of Today, Snowden is officially requesting asylum in the not-so-freedom-loving Russia.
For others, Snowden is too secretive. After The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald revealed that Snowden had been withholding “blueprints” about how the NSA functions, political blogger Andrew Sullivan blasted both of them: “If Snowden and Greenwald want to expose what they regard as illicit programs, why not just expose them? Bragging about their capacity to blackmail or terrify their own government seems, well, at best hyperbolic, and when the threat is made in a foreign newspaper, disturbing.”
For good measure, White House spokesman Jay Carney weighed in, saying “He is not a human rights activist. He is not a dissident.'”
Snowden doesn’t seem to have many friends.
Who Cares About Snowden?
The problem with all the Snowden bashing is that none of the critics can explain why he matters, beyond what he’s already exposed. If Snowden disappeared tomorrow, Google would still be fighting to disclose more information about who the NSA targets, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation would still be trying to stop the whole dragnet operation altogether.
While Snowden has been in airport limbo, Yahoo won the right to disclose its top-secret fight against email monitoring.
The political snowball that he began rolling already has a life of its own and doesn’t seem to be affected by what he does or believes. Indeed, after it was uncovered that, a few years ago, Snowden wrote that data leakers like himself “should be shot,” none of the court battles or public outrage that have proceeded from his exposé have slowed down in the slightest.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that Snowden is making questionable personal decisions. If he were charming or well-spoken, there would be a temptation to anchor an important civil liberties movement to the fragility of a single person. Without Snowden, the fight carries on as an idea, which is where all moral battles should be.