Edward Snowden’s removal of thousands, perhaps millions, of highly classified documents from the National Security Agency and his decision to turn them over to journalists for publication ignited a fierce debate about who and what he is. On one side are those who hail Snowden as a whistleblower, someone who, as the New York Times editorialized, “has done his country a great service.” Others regard him as a criminal or traitor. Neither this debate nor the public discussion of government secrecy and surveillance policies that Snowden’s actions sparked will be resolved anytime soon.
Snowden, meanwhile, says that his “mission’s already accomplished,” that he has given Americans a “say in how they are governed” and that he has succeeded in exposing the workings of what he has called the unbridled “surveillance state.”
But one must ask: Are Snowden’s actions in consonance with his words?
Snowden has taken sanctuary in Russia, a country that, when it was under communist control, epitomized the idea of a surveillance state, complete with a secret police force — the KGB — that worked assiduously to monitor and control the population. Today Russia is a quasi-democracy that has retained some features of its communist past. Over the past decade or so, under the tutelage of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, it has been sliding ever deeper back into authoritarianism.
That authoritarianism is maintained in part by a domestic surveillance system. Two intrepid Russian journalists, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, explain in the fall 2013 issue of World Policy Journal how it works. They show that the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor organization to the KGB, has invested in technology that allows it to monitor telephone and Internet communications and to collect and store not just metadata — information about call destinations and durations — but also the content of communications. The Russian state uses that technology to engage in essentially unchecked surveillance of telephone calls, e-mail traffic, blogs, online bulletin boards and Web sites. Soldatov and Borogan conclude that over the past two years “the Kremlin has transformed Russia into a surveillance state — at a level that would have made the Soviet KGB . . . envious.”
Extensive domestic surveillance is far from the only threat to liberty in Russia. The democracy watchdog organization Freedom House reports that freedom of the press is under serious threat there. On one side, the authorities use their control over mass media outlets to engage in “blatant propaganda” that glorifies the Kremlin leadership. On the other side, the government engages in uninhibited intimidation of critics and suppression of dissenting views. It employs violence to silence journalists and whistleblowers. The cases are becoming legion; Snowden could ask Ulyana Malashenko of Kommersant FM about her beating at police hands or ask Elena Milashina of Novaya Gazeta about hers.
Freedom’s parlous condition in Russia is not exactly a secret today, nor was it when Snowden chose to fly to Moscow last summer and ask for political asylum. If his objective is to give people a voice in how they are governed, and to expose massive unbridled surveillance, he could speak out about practices of the Russian government that, in their scope and lawlessness, go far beyond anything ever undertaken or even alleged to have been undertaken by the U.S. government.
For better or for worse, Snowden has a huge following around the world. His words are listened to by millions — so he could make a difference where it counts. Yet he has been silent about the surveillance and other repressive state machinery surrounding him. Why? Is he being polite to his hosts? Does he have concerns about what the FSB might do in response to what he might say?
Whatever the answer, Snowden’s silence about the quasi-dictatorship where he has taken sanctuary is telling. It is yet more evidence, if evidence were needed, that he is not a whistleblower at all. It suggests that, instead of being a brave speaker of truths, he fears American justice, and not only American justice. It also suggests he is a hypocrite, with principles that he applies selectively against the democracy he has betrayed.