I’ve never met Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and current infamous NSA secrets leaker stuck in no man’s land at Moscow’s international airport for more than three weeks now. I don’t know him and I don’t know anyone who knows him. What I think I know about him, like you, I’ve superficially learned mostly from the news media.
Yet what I think I know about him — some of which is based on good news reporting and his own comments but much of which is based on hearsay, innuendo, and biases I and others possess — is not enough to make a definitive conclusion about his motives, about who he is as a person.
You have to really know someone, have walked a mile in his or her shoes, to truly understand their motives. So since I don’t know Snowden, I can’t reach a conclusion about who he really is. Well, let me correct that. I CAN reach a conclusion, but as badly as my human nature wants to do so, I’m trying not to decide who Edward Snowden really is. And therefore I’m a bit torn about him.
On the one hand, I feel a little sorry for him. He’s effectively a man without a country. Not that any of this is, or should be, an excuse for giving away secrets he was entrusted to keep, but he’s young, still impressionable, and probably has been taken advantage of by those who don’t like the U.S.
His passport has been revoked and he’s been charged with espionage due to his leaking of NSA secrets. He’s been offered asylum in several Latin American countries, none of which can be described as a friend of the U.S. Neither can the two countries that have helped him so far — China and Russia — be described as U.S. friends.
He’s a high school dropout who earned a GED. With his limited formal education, but must be other-worldly computer skills, he reportedly earned more than $200,000 a year as a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor with the NSA.
This of course is not an area for which I feel sorry for him, but I have to admit to wondering how the heck someone with so little education who sits behind a desk tapping on computer keys can earn so much money. But then again, I don’t know what Snowden did with the NSA so I must suppress my nature to want to conclude his worth.
The reporter with whom Snowden is working and who originally broke the NSA leaks story, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, told the Argentinean daily La Nacion in an interview published Saturday, "Snowden has enough information to cause more harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had in the history of the United States."
In the history of the United States? If what Greenwald said is true, that’s a heavy cross for anyone to bear. I certainly wouldn’t want to bear it. So yes, overall I feel a little sorry for Snowden.
But then again, Snowden’s problems are of his own making. While I can’t know Snowden’s intentions for leaking NSA secrets, regardless of how noble his intentions may have been, he signed a classified information nondisclosure agreement with Booz Allen Hamilton allowing him access to NSA secrets. Anyone with access to U.S. government secrets must sign such an agreement before being granted access to those secrets. It is a legally binding document between the U.S. government and the individual.
While the words on Snowden’s nondisclosure agreement may have been slightly different, all such nondisclosure statements say the same thing: "Intending to be legally bound, I hereby accept the obligations contained in this Agreement in consideration of being granted access to classified information. … I have been advised that the unauthorized disclosure, unauthorized retention, or negligent handing of classified information by me could cause damage or irreparable injury to the United States or could be used to advantage by a foreign nation. … I have been advised that any breach of this agreement may constitute a violation of United States criminal laws."
So I am a bit torn about Snowden. I can’t be positive about much with him. But there is one thing I’m absolutely positive about: Whatever noble intentions Snowden may have had, he failed to uphold his end of the classified information nondisclosure agreement made with the people of the United States. He therefore needs to return to the U.S. to face the espionage charges against him. Any other choice is ignoble and cowardly.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.