The day before New Year’s Eve, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Edward Jay Epstein in which a pompous character assassination of Edward Snowden was carried out. The conclusion was simply that Snowden is a Russian spy. Clearly his article resonated well with people with a certain set of beliefs. Others received it with outrage. The article is unlikely to have changed anybody’s mind.

The only reasonable thing to do is to remain sceptical of people who peddle unfounded narratives, this includes my unfounded narrative. The fact is that we cannot know Snowden’s motives. It is easy to attract or repel people by activating their prejudices. Select suitable tableaus, letter and color them suggestively and voilá you have a biased comic book. Epstein’s comic book is garish and pompous. We are idiots if we don’t buy his story. I will now work my way through Epstein’s tableaus and color them in according to my biases. Regardless of your opinon on Snowden you shouldn’t treat either Epstein’s or my article as any form of evidence. Read them both with your sceptical glasses on; we are namely speculating. If you are already capable of maintaining a sceptical mind you can stop reading now. (You can’t).

Colouring the Comic Book

Epstein will tell you that you are naive if you trust the Snowden narrative; that he formed a conviction during his years within the intelligence community that the transgressions of the American government ought to be made public, which led to him finally risking life, career and family ties to travel to Hong Kong in May of 2013 where he meticulously handed over selected information to the press in order to make the American public aware of the rampant overreaches of their government.

The two first reasons Epstein lists as grounds for scepticism are as follows.

  • Edward Snowden disappeared with the “stolen” information only six weeks after having started with Booz Allen Hamilton. Epstein wants you to understand that this is much to short a time for a person to form any sort of moral conviction. Also note the use of the word “theft” — Epstein is a blunt but convincing colorer of comic books.
  • Snowden lied to his boss and said that he was in hospital for an epilepsy investigation, when he was in fact already in Hong Kong. In mentioning this, Epstein is aiming to trigger a moralistic response: lying is bad, don’t you agree?

Epstein draws a picture of a cowardly and underwhelming villain. My comic book however depicts a luminous but troubled all-American constitutionalist and democracy-believer. After many years on different positions in intelligence (he started 2006 as a sys-admin with CIA) he became more and more disillusioned and convinced that someone ought to do something. He never dared utter his thoughts to colleagues or family, wise from the punishments that previous whistleblowers had received, even when done via more “correct” channels. First of all, we are talking more in the neighbourhood of 330 weeks during which any decent person ought to be able to find his moral whereabouts. Loads of time if you are Snowden and are driven by an indomitable pathos for justice. Then again; it is also plenty of time if you are building a cover as a double agent. Which interpretation do you prefer?

He lied to his boss. So what? It is only natural for a person who wishes to put as much distance as possible between himself and gangsters whose suspenders he is about to pop. Doubtlessly he would prefer to avoid prisons and “accidents”. On the other hand we can reasonably expect a spy to exhibit the same behaviour. Neither interpretation proves anything.

Is this starting to make sense to you? Descriptions of circumstances are meaningless without interpretations through human biases. If it is easy to colour a circumstance with various interpretations; this is a clear sign that proof for any of the interpretations is lacking.

If your biases are well aligned with Epstein’s you will find yourself tempted to draw the conclusion that Snowden has in fact been a Russian agent all along. If that is the case, why didn’t he inform his superiors via cryptographically secure and secret channels? The way agents would normally operate?

It seems unreasonable to me that Snowden, one of very few people on this earth who knows how to communicate with near perfect secrecy would instead choose to take an illicit leave of absence for “medical reasons” and a wide detour over earth towards the Motherland, all the while stopping to have a nice long chat with Glenn Greenwald while recording a documentary, with a target on his back.

Why then didn’t Snowden choose to take cover behind anonymity, and leak his material via for example Wikileaks? This is my theory:

  1. Civil courage.
  2. He thought that the fourth estate would be better suited at vetting the material than himself, basically he wanted journalists to do journalism.
  3. He wanted to protect the reporters he chose to supply information to.
  4. Had he not come out the material in itself could more easily have been discredited.
  5. It would have been extremely risky to remain at his post even incognito, the data he supplied was fresh and everybody would have been up for scrutiny.

Let’s play a game of manufacturing “truth”

If I were to wear my Epstein-hat for a moment I could come up with even wilder speculations than he himself manages. Put on your tinfoil hat for this one folks! Suppose that Operation Snowden is Russia’s most successful subversive operation of all time! The Russians planted or recruited him, and he proved a reliable source of information for years. A vodka infused stroke of genius made them realise that they could capitalise on Snowdens unusual charisma and his ingenious countenance. They planned an extravagant exfiltration; with the enthusiastic help of the left wing reporter Glenn Greenwald and the subversive proxy Wikileaks the dominoes were lined up and finally toppled. This resulted in a bombastic “leak” which indeed left the American federal government standing with its pants down, thus increasing Putin’s manoeuvrability on international and the domestic stages. Add to this an exhilarating escape where Snowden just happened to end up in Moscow from where he could safely continue as a thorn in the side of the Amerikanskis. This rampant conspiracy theory could easily become “truth” — all it takes is a bundle of crayons and a set of prejudices. (Remember where you heard it first!)

The critical thinker Epstein is less controversial, he asks us to trust a secret damage report that the NSA and Pentagon assembled in a gigantic effort and which was made “public” in a suitably censored state on December 22nd. That’s eight days before Epstein’s article. (The eight days are not interesting, but the mere fact that I mention them will cause your brain to create a meaning for that statement which rhymes well with your biases.)

The report assesses that Snowden copied in the vicinity of 1.5 million electronic documents, and it delights in informing us that that would equal a pile of papers 3.8 miles high. Holy smokes! That’s a lot of documents! About the same hight as Mount Bona in Alaska! In electronic terms however, it is more akin to a fart in space.

A page in Tom Sawyer is about 2,995 bytes, lets say that each “stolen document” is 50 pages long. That would give a total data size of 209 gigabytes. You’d fit that on a plus-size USB-stick. It is obviously a massive amount of information — more than any average person would be capable of intelligently digesting in a lifetime. Arguing which metaphors best describes the size of the data is just a semantic exercise, used to stoke prejudices, which is my point. Did he steal Mount Bona from its rightful owner, or did he return some information a USB stick with information to its rightful owners? I suppose it is a matter of taste. More specifically, it is a matter of prejudice.

Furthermore the report estimates that only a fraction of the total data has reached the press. Journalists have supposedly divulged material based on a tenth of a percent of the 1.5 million documents (a 5 yard high pile).

One tenth of one percent of Mount Bona

Where are the other 3.799 miles of documents? And why did he copy that many documents if he only wanted to blow the whistle on certain specific problems? Epstein is not prone to trust Snowden when he himself states that he deleted all the documents that he didn’t specifically give to the journalistic corps before he left Hong Kong. Instead he places his faith in the ever neutral actors the NSA and Pentagon, who say that:

What they want you to read, and what they do not want you to read.

According to the stirring NSA and Pentagon damage report, Edward Snowden indiscriminately copied information using simple automation-tools. It takes but a moment for a tech-savvy person to set up, after which they can be left running in the background while ostensibly dealing with day-to-day NSA related work (which by the way entails downloading and sniffing on a sizeable chunk of the entire Internet; using automated tools). Automation simply allowed him to avoid suspicion. He probably chose to pick through the data after working hours for roughly the same reasons. Acting in any other way would be ridiculous for a man who is breaking the law, whether as a conscientious citizen or a Russian spy.

Guilty as charged?

We can have no verification that Snowden really has deleted the data he didn’t give to the press. That is an impossible thing to prove short of having full insight into every move Snowden has made since the he started copying files. We are left with considering what is probable. And the realm of probability and suggestiveness is the niche of Epstein’s comic book. In mine; Snowden is a hero of the American citizenry, as such everything he does is powered by virtue. If the Russians have obtained any data from him, they have obtained it against his will, under duress and threats. But I deem even this as unreasonable. I don’t think he has given them a scrap of intel.

Snowden’s happy and intelligent countenance when he appears via satellite link at conferences and news shows reveals a person who has pride, balance, conviction and an anti-authoritarian outlook on life. Would he appear this way if he really had broken and given the Russians military secrets? Would he have this immense poker face if he were actually a Russian spy? If so he is one of the most blatant psychopaths the world has ever seen. And if there is one thing we can say with absolute certainty it is this: Highly intelligent psychopaths never risk their own hide. They do however tend to thrive in dysfunctional organisations that operate with impunity. Which is why they are overrepresented in leadership positions in precisely those kinds of organisations.

Furthermore Epstein contends that it was hardly a fluke that Snowden ended up in Russia. Snowden has claimed that his passport was annulled while he was in-flight to Moscow for further transfer. This seems to be untrue. The passport was in fact annulled the day before. How could he leave Hong Kong without it? It turns out that the authorities in Hong Kong didn’t deem the American requests to arrest, extradite and contain Snowden as sufficient. Among other things they had given conflicting names and passport numbers for Snowden. Also Hong Kong wanted more information from the Americans in order to make sure that the requested actions were not politically motivated. See this article from the Hong Kong Standard.

When Snowden landed in Moscow, with a ticket to Ecuador, Ecuador had in fact withdrawn his permits to apply for asylum. If I have understood this correctly, this is the document, in tandem with his passport, that made his travel out of Hong Kong possible in the first place. Ecuador is the country that Snowden and his closest confidantes claim he was aiming for. Snowden apologists on the other hand (the very word suggestive of foul play) claim that it was the actions of the US, in particular their pressure on Ecuador and other countries not to accept him that made travel from Moscow impossible. They scared the living daylights out of every government that could have offered him security.

Epstein instead suggests that we should regard with suspicion that it was Aeroflot that flew him to Moscow. In his comic book the Russian ruffians are to be glimpsed in every shadow. In my comic book however; it is rather natural for a Russian carrier to have flights to Moscow. I see no reason to use it as grounds for defamation, certainly not after Hong Kong has admitted that they let him fly away with travel documents that they judged valid. Certainly, airline carriers are allowed to refuse passengers on grounds of insufficient proof of acceptance at the final destination. Snowden did have such proof when he started out from Hong Kong. Not so when he landed in Moscow.

Again, it is hard to know the truth. It is possible that Snowden did hope to get stuck in Russia, maybe he even counted on Ecuador to withdraw his entry permit due to American pressure. If so, it was a high stakes game that paid off. If I would have been in Snowden’s shoes I would have certainly drawn the conclusion that I would be physically safest in Moscow. And if I would have been a Russian intelligence officer I would have been rubbing my hands in anticipation of his arrival. Notwithstanding any 3.799 miles of documents, Snowden’s brain alone is a source worthy of cultivation. Snowden himself claims that he has given them nothing, but can we trust a person who has demonstrably lied to his boss about sick leave?

Has Snowden given the Russians sensitive information? Apparently some elevated Russian servants have claimed that this is the case. Epstein accepts these statements as valid incriminating circumstances. It is impossible to know for sure. My love for Snowden is not rational — his strike against the core of the American deep state is something that I value highly, but that does not prohibit the possibility of him having provided the Russians with tidbits of military secrets. It is just that I find it highly unlikely.

It is more likely then that he has kept some sensitive information as a life insurance. If he had indeed divulged all he knows to the Russians, he would be more expendable to a larger extent — all of his potential damage would already have been done. A dead-man’s switch however, could provide security for a longer time. I do hope that he has made such provisions.

My interpretation is that Edward Snowden is an ideologically convinced freedom fighter who has dealt a real haymaker to the powers under which he served, and he has had to pay a dear price. Perhaps a part of that price is certain compromises with the Russians, this is what Epstein presumptuously argues, but provides zero evidence for.

What should we really focus on?

I am aware that I have an emotional disinclination to admit that Snowden would lapse so egregiously so as to find himself as a de facto spy, even though I can intellectually recognise the possibility. Putin himself says that Snowden is as silent as a mouse. But if you trust Putin you are as gullible as if you would be if you trusted representatives of the American government. I think it is better if you proceed with the following attitude: that whatever people say regarding the matter, they say it out of self-interest. For example in the interest of selling a book which in its entirety is devoted to the speculative narrative of Snowden’s betrayal and thievery.

In the absence of evidence I find it preposterous to contend that Snowden is a renegade or traitor. Snowden is a tireless opponent of authoritarianism. He lectures, debates, writes and is engaged in activism in order to protect freedom and privacy. He inspires people to global action with his sharp and witty criticism of government overreaches and his uplifting message of personal responsibility. Suggesting that Snowden is a traitor is possible only if one thinks that it is “treason” to disclose the violations of the mobster organisation you yourself are a part of.

Unlike the speculations of Epstein and myself; what has been proven to the point of absurdity are the transgressions of the American federal government, much thanks to Edward Snowden. The Orwellian surveillance state is here, and it is morally correct to offer it resistance. It view it as a moral prerogative to give it the finger. This is the issue that should spur us into action and that we should dedicate our resources to. The ifs and buts of Snowdens celebrity, although compelling, are mere mist in the face of this fundamental truth.

Something is deeply unsettling when it comes to both supporters and detractors dancing around the totem pole of Snowden. As a supporter I risk leaving the struggle and instead spend my time signalling my values through his actions. A detractor however, cannot lose if we accept a game plan based on the supposed virtues or vices of Snowden himself. Snowden would say that it shouldn’t be about him. We should take that exact piece of advice, regardless of its underlying motivations, and continue the work.