Edward Snowden (Courtesy of guardiannews.com)
Last week I traveled to Russia with three other Americans to present former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden with the annual Sam Adams Associates Award for Integrity in Intelligence. Ray McGovern (retired CIA analyst), Thomas Drake (former NSA senior executive and whistleblower), Coleen Rowley (retired FBI agent and whistleblower), and I felt it especially important that Snowden receive this award from Americans who served the government in the national security and intelligence fields. Being the first Americans to see Snowden since he left Hong Kong, we all had serious concerns about our trip—not about getting into Russia, but about getting back into our own country. We left Washington, DC, having a lawyer on retainer and no electronics—cell phones, laptops or any of today’s normal lifelines—knowing that the United States could geo-locate our whereabouts and find Snowden, and also knowing we could have our devices searched and confiscated upon our return.
The Sam Adams Integrity Award is named for a CIA analyst who discovered in 1967 that there were more than a half-million Vietnamese Communists under arms—roughly twice the number that the US command in Saigon would admit to, lest Americans learn that claims of “progress” were bogus. Adams continued to press for honesty and accountability but stayed “inside channels”—and failed. He died at 55 of a heart attack, nagged by the thought that, had he not let himself be diddled, many lives might have been saved. We believe that Snowden exemplifies Sam Adams’s courage, persistence and devotion to truth—no matter what the consequences. We wanted Snowden to know that, as opposed to the daily vitriol from the US government and mainstream media, 60 percent of the United States supports him, including thousands in the national security and intelligence agencies where we used to work.
The first thing I’m universally asked is how Edward Snowden is doing. Given the extraordinary circumstances and pressure he’s under, Snowden is doing remarkably well. He’s warm and engaged, greeting us with long embraces. His is well-grounded, centered, and has a quick sense of humor, darkly joking that if he were a spy, Russia treats its spies much better than leaving them trapped in the Sheremetyevo transit zone for over a month. He is brilliant, humble and idealistic—in the best sense of the word. It is the sort of idealism that allows someone to undertake such a magnificent act of civil disobedience. It’s an idealism that believes the democracy he once knew can be reined in from the surveillance state it has become, if only the public knew what was going on. And it is this idealism that prevented him from contemplating being rendered effectively stateless by the country he risked his life to help, even if he did understand that he would be accused of espionage and could face life in jail.
Snowden’s exile has fueled a universal, obsessive fixation on where he is and who is protecting him—rather than looking at why he is in hiding and why he needs sanctuary. The answer to his whereabouts is simple: I don’t know, and even if I did, I would not compromise his safety. “Finding Snowden” belies his actual status. He is an “asylee,” not a “fugitive,” as the mainstream media in America describe him routinely—even some of the trusted journalists who write exclusives based on his revelations. An asylee has the right to be left alone, not hunted like an animal. But similar to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Snowden is in a new purgatory the US has created: free but not free. Snowden is technically free, but still circumscribed by the specter of his home country, which refuses to recognize Russia’s grant of political asylum under international law and human rights agreements.
As for who is providing for his security—WikiLeaks? FSB?—this question is borne not out of a concern for his safety, but rather a US desire to perpetuate a false narrative that Snowden is being controlled by the Russians. I can say with certainty: Edward Snowden is not being controlled by the Russians, or anyone for that matter. He is fiercely independent and makes his own decisions, leaving him perplexed and understandably frustrated by the continuous insinuations that he is giving the Russians information. He ticks off abundant evidence to the contrary. First, he points out, he didn’t destroy his life to become a Russian asset. Second, he’s in Russia only because of the United States, which revoked his passport while he was en route to Latin America. Third, WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison has been by his side the whole time, in part to bear witness to the fact that he is not engaged in spying activity. Fourth, it is obvious that he chose to give information about NSA’s secret dragnet surveillance to the US people, not foreign adversaries. Fifth, and perhaps most significantly considering the contrary narrative promulgated in the United States, he has not had access to the information he revealed since he left Hong Kong. Here, rational logic fails and cognitive dissonance clouds him from seeing that the spy allegation is just a more incendiary version of the routine smears always leveled against whistleblowers. For why would your country crucify you when you’re trying to keep it on the right path?