Ed Snowden’s Act Two
The slippery morality of whistleblowing
Though I too was once reviled by the U.S. intelligence community as a faithless leaker and turncoat, Edward Snowden and I don’t have much else in common.
In fact, I have written skeptically of the former NSA/CIA contractor who stole boatloads of U.S. secrets, many unrelated to his stated concern about the privacy of U.S. citizens—and then leaked them to the universe under the guise of defending our 4th Amendment rights against “unreasonable searches and seizures.
”My gripes about Snowden have been fairly well publicized. And he and his supporters are likely aware of them.
So I was somewhat surprised when I discovered several weeks ago that Snowden has resurrected an old news clip from my whistleblowing days, annotated it with some positive if calculated messaging and flung it across the Twitter-sphere.
The clip features a videotaped interview I gave in 1983 about my role in spreading disinformation to the U.S. press corps in Vietnam. I’d performed this task as part of my duties as a CIA intelligence analyst in Saigon. The skewed briefings I’d delivered (always unattributable to me) were designed to gin up positive coverage of U.S. policy and the merits of continued aid handouts to our South Vietnamese allies.
Snowden’s Tweet included a link to a snippet of that interview. “The most important video of the year was filmed in 1983,” he wrote. “The entire thing is much longer [than the excerpt] but entirely worth the watch.”
Anyone who bothers to open the link to it may be disappointed.
The video shows a much younger, more callow version of myself, scrunched in a portico overlooking the USC campus, robotically fielding questions from a tweedy TV journalist named Clete Roberts.
Speaking in a studied monotone, I assure Roberts that whenever I delivered cooked briefings I typically trafficked in half-truths, not outright lies. On one occasion, I tell him, I tried to whip up sympathy for our allies by handing over entirely accurate classified estimates of expanding enemy force levels, but without letting on to the reporter that for every new enemy infiltrator there had been a matching casualty in the past year. I also acknowledge having peddled unverified rumors to the press when the available intelligence failed to tell the tale that policy makers desired.
Under further questioning, I made clear to Roberts that because my briefings always came swathed in top secret wrappings, there was no easy way for a reporter to confirm or dispute my “facts.” I point out that the reporters invited to my briefs were always from the most trusted publications, such as The New York Times, The New Yorker magazine, and The Chicago Daily News. They were singled out, I explain, not because they worked for the CIA (which they didn’t), but because of their proven credibility.
Looking back over the video all these years later, I am surprised it would garner much interest. The soporific effect of my uninflected delivery is numbing enough to fell a moose. And the decidedly dated quality of my revelations would seem to make them natural fodder for a burn basket.
But Snowden’s enthusiastic endorsement instantly turned my mini missile into an ICBM. Moscow’s “white” propaganda broadcast outlet, RT, recycled the original Tweet plus the video and some commentary. In a wink, Snowden’s massive on-line fanbase—with the apparent help of Russian bots—annotated the original package with increasingly gonzo marginalia and vaulted it into the far reaches of social media.
New subscribers swarmed my You Tube site and an old girlfriend called from New York to remark on how dapper I’d looked back in 1983 before time’s winged chariot had left its skid marks all over me.
As interest mounted and the Tweet thread lengthened, I couldn’t help wondering: Why me? Why had Snowden chosen a decidedly ambivalent ex-spook-turned-skeptic to be poster boy for a new anti-CIA hit?
Clues and consequences
After the initial Covid outbreak, Snowden, snugly holed up in Moscow and unrepentant about betraying U.S. intelligence, lowered his public profile. For months he concentrated on nailing down Russian citizenship for himself and adding to his family (a second child).
But then, on September 22 of this year, four days before receiving his citizenship papers, he burst back into relevance by posting an article on Substack titled portentously “America's Open Wound - The CIA Is Not Your Friend.”
The piece was a rehash of much of the CIA’s now familiar sordid history, including its infiltration of U.S. media outlets during the Cold War, its mini-wars, Murder Inc. operations, and its execrable support of enhanced interrogation after 9/1l.
But like all of Snowden’s prior diatribes of this sort, it lacks a vital piece of context—any mention of the fact that his patron saint is a monster whose atrocities exceed anything that might be honestly ascribed to U.S. intelligence.
Not that this excuses any abuses by our own spy agencies. But Snowden’s inability to own Putin as a factor in his ethical balance sheet (likely for fear of being felled by a Russian bullet or thrown to our own wolves) is disqualifying. It robs Snowden of any authority to render moral judgment on anybody—and all the more now that Putin is committing murder, torture and rape on an epic scale in Ukraine.
Perhaps Snowden had no choice but to accept Russian citizenship, which has obliged him to swear an oath of allegiance to Putin’s homicidal regime. (He says he wants protection against extradition.) But clearly, this new, demonstrably transactional defender of the motherland is “more equal” than many other draftable Russian citizens since he has somehow avoided being dragooned into death duty in the Donbas.
What tradeoff did he make to win such a dispensation?
The answer to that question, I believe, explains why he has re-entered the lists to do battle against the CIA. Whatever U.S. secrets he had in his knapsack to use in bartering for Putin’s favor are likely past their sell-by date or already spent coinage. Now Snowden’s only negotiable currency is his ability to help service Putin’s needs in his current crisis.
One of those needs intensifies every time Russian troops get bloodied in Ukraine, because every time that happens, it takes a nick out of Putin’s credibility, emboldening his adversaries at home and abroad, heightening the danger of domestic unrest and solidifying the alliances arrayed against him. So, he must—for the sake of his own survival —wrest control of the public narrative and use it to spotlight somebody else’s sins so as to distract from his own.
A playbook is already available. During the U.S election of 2018, in a series of “influence operations,” Putin sent trolls, bots and human thug nuts swarming into social media and other information streams to sow confusion among the masses and mistrust of his then-arch nemesis, Hillary Clinton. Replaying this strategy in an updated format with the CIA in the crosshairs would doubtless ease Putin’s PR problems if he could find just the right team to do the smudge work. The ideal recruit would boast a high “Q” rating in the western media, lots of Internet savvy and preferably some fluency in western spy work.
Do we know anyone in Putin’s pocket who fits this job description?
Cue Edward Snowden.
If you believe I am overdrawing the picture, stick with me a moment as I graph out how Snowden’s original messaging about my video has morphed into a legion of “likes” that may leave many convinced that the CIA is the wizard behind every curtain.
Just before Snowden tweeted out my video, an RT news bulletin provided a clue to what was coming. It told a Disneyesque tale about how Snowden had recently (allegedly) stumbled on a fake kindergarten book of all things and had been awakened to the unfair victimization of Russia as a spreader of fake news. He is said to have recognized the little tome, author unidentified, as the satirical embodiment of a “meme dating back to the Trump era of finding elusive ‘Russian trolls’ everywhere.”
The story is so convoluted it is almost impossible to unpack. But the through-line seems to be that Russian bots and trolls have taken a bum rap for all the fake news flying about on social media.
So, who is to blame?
Two days after the RT story broke, Snowden had my video up and running, and the CIA was in the hot seat.
In a tag to his original package Snowden thanked a fellow twitter user for piquing his curiosity about past CIA dirty tricks and whether they are still in use. He claimed to have been thus inspired to go “looking for old interviews of all the former employees the CIA had sued into silence.”
Focus on that last phrase, “sued into silence.” When I read that, a light bulb went on. I realized immediately why Snowden had zeroed in on me and my video.
In 1980 I was “sued into silence” in a landmark 1st Amendment/national security case.
Snowden, in his inaugural tweet about me, recalls the essential facts.
“The government” he writes, “sued Snepp in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that intelligence workers had to submit any statement for censorship, even those unrelated to secrets.”
What triggered the lawsuit was my decision to publish a memoir about my CIA service in Vietnam without clearing it with the agency. The Carter Justice Department conceded there were no litigable secrets in Decent Interval, as my memoir is titled, but argued that by simply flouting discipline I had irreparably harmed the nation’s defenses by creating doubt about whether any government security rule could be enforced. The Supreme Court agreed. In a judgment handed down in early 1980, the six-man majority gagged me for life (subjecting me to CIA censorship in the future), imposed crippling financial penalties and thus established a precedent for the government to use in suing other errant agents into silence.
What Snowden is telling us in his tweet reference to my case is that he is turning the tables on the agency, taking the list of all former CIA employees “sued into silence” under the Snepp ruling, and using it to identify potential new sources of dirt on the agency.
If this was a summons, it worked.
Moments after his tweet went viral, images of an old CIA colleague of mine, who has likewise been sued into silence, blossomed on Snowden’s Twitter thread. His name: John Stockwell. The images were drawn from an interview he’d given in 1978 shortly after publishing a withering exposé about CIA operations in Angola where he had served as heroically as he had in Vietnam. The government eventually prosecuted him under the Snepp precedent for not getting his book pre-approved by the agency. The twitter user who posted the video seemed to be offering him up as a possible person of interest to Snowden.
There is no evidence that Stockwell himself weighed in. But clearly Snowden has cast his line and is getting nibbles.
He’s also done something else— triggering a viral feeding frenzy of crazies who are willing to read the old video clip of me as proof that CIA trolls and bots are busily gnawing their way into our brains right here and right now, using the very disinformation tactics I deployed in Saigon a half century ago.
I am not sure when critical mass was reached, but it may have been with a posting that popped up within moments of Snowden’s inaugural tweet. It appeared on a mysterious social media platform labeled “Above Top Secret,” whose tag notes advertise a hard right bias, a record of CIA bashing, and some murky web linkages that look suspiciously bot-like.
“The point here is simple,” declared the ATS’s anonymous scrivener. “If CIA disinformation was that prevalent back then [during the Vietnam war] one can only imagine what it is NOW. And you wonder why we should ever trust the mainstream media.”
The paranoia metastasized, and in less than ten days became gospel. On Nov. 18 a Snowden fanboy, an American expat living in Perth named John Kendall Hawkins, pulled all the threads together in a post to the website, “Counterpunch.”
Cooing over Snowden as if he were the Second Coming, Hawkins hailed him for having unearthed a devastating confession from me. He wrote of his hero: “Perhaps one of the most important pieces to hit the Twittersphere (under Red Light) is his re-tweet of an interview with a former CIA operative, Frank Snepp, who openly admits that many of the disturbing conspiracy theory details of Operation Mockingbird—the Agency MSM influencing operation—were true.”
Whatever Hawkins was smoking, I had admitted no such thing. But that didn’t seem to matter. Apparently convinced that the CIA is now slithering its way into the media’s main frames, he confessed to being especially suspicious of a New Yorker reporter and two of his recent stories, one about a rock band allegedly owned by the CIA, and another profiling a guy accused of busting into NSA’s ultra-secret Vault 7.
Hawkins didn’t finger the reporter as a CIA hack but tickled our suspicions by wondering aloud: “who is he bedding down with at the CIA to get these tidbits?”
Hawkins also reinforced my own suspicion that Snowden is on his way to becoming a Boss Troll for Putin.
“Edward Snowden is back in the Paul Revere horsey saddle—Hooray!” Hawkins enthused. “I have been walking around in a one-man parade with happy balloons all day!”
The plot thickens.
"We have interfered, we are interfering, and we will continue to interfere. Carefully, accurately, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do."
So said Putin’s premier troll master, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a written statement released to the press on Nov. 7, the very day that Snowden tweeted out his Snepp video.
It was as frank an admission as you are likely to get from any Putin insider that Russia has its digital tentacles coiled around our political privates.
It also means that Snowden is orbiting close to the power grid in Moscow.
Ballyhooed as “Putin’s chef” because of his catering deals with the Kremlin, Prigozhin owns a private army known as the Wagner Group that’s done extensive wet work in Syria, Africa and Ukraine. He also heads up three troll farms that inflicted pro-Trump lies and other mind-fakes on Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Gullible in 2016.
Two years later a grand jury working off of evidence gathered by Robert Mueller’s investigators indicted Prigozhin and twelve other Russian spoilers in absentia on charges arising from that troll fest.”
Prigozhin seems to wear the indictment like a badge of honor.
Up until recently he’s been semi-invisible, basking quietly in Putin’s patronage while brushing aside questions about the troll farms and the Wagner Group. But last July the U.S. Justice Department offered a $10 million award to anyone with information about Prigozhin’s role in mucking up U.S. politics. That seems to have gotten his goat, possibly because the bounty was too modest. In what appears to be a deliberate effort to pre-empt any potential tattler, he admitted in September that he does indeed run the Wagner group.
Then came the brazen in-your-face announcement a few weeks ago about his fetish for meddling in U.S. media and politics.
The timing of that outburst, coinciding as it did with Snowden’s tweeted effort to put the CIA in the blame box created a moment of mixed messaging.
But no matter: the awkwardness is already come-and-gone.
And don’t forget, all this comes as Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, dismantles the site’s last remaining truth controls, making it a no-holds-barred playpen for all ninja trolls.
Snowden and Prigozhin seem to be positioning themselves to make the most of open season.
Is it really about morality and high purprose?
There has been much turgid debate over the years about whether Snowden is a leaker, a whistleblower, a traitor, or somebody’s naive dupe. I prefer to base my case on simple facts.
Since popping into the public eye in 2013 with many, many secrets to tell, Snowden, 39, has given a variety of explanations of why he chose to stick it to U.S. intelligence. He has cited bad behavior by some of his former NSA superiors, and his shock at learning that one of his erstwhile employers, the CIA, does nasty things. But there is no credible evidence that he protested any of this within official channels.
In his autobiography published on Constitution Day in 2019, Snowden says he had his Come-to-Jesus epiphany when he discovered that the intelligence community had “hacked the Constitution.” But a deep-dive New Yorker article by Jill Lepore, keyed to his book and past interviews, paints a far more nuanced picture of his evolution from IT wunderkind into leaker extraordinaire.
He is described as having been an introverted kid, fascinated with gaming, who came to view the Internet as a vast romper room where you could roam free to your heart’s content with no limits on your fantasies. But —so Lepore suggests—his early experiences as an NSA and CIA contractor specializing in high-stakes electronic surveillance turned him into a fallen romantic. It is said that one day while he was studying Chinese surveillance programs it occurred to him that maybe U.S. intelligence might be up to the same mischief, and out of curiosity he went searching for proof through NSA’s databases. It wasn’t that he was reacting to some horrific trauma or meltdown of faith. He was simply a speculator in quest of the big payoff.
Eventually he found it, in files involving massive NSA programs that were vacuuming up tons of data often bearing on our privacy.
At this point in the story, Lepore drops in a compelling description of what Snowden took away from his discoveries.
“Snowden came to believe,” she writes, “that the forces that ruined the Internet of his boyhood were less the forces of libertarianism that left corporations unchecked, giving rise to endless forms of capture, tracking and mining and manipulation, than the forces of government, that, under the pervasive authority of the 2001 Patriot Act made the Internet a place where it was impossible to be unknown and ungoverned. He wanted to end that game. Reset. New Game.”
This Eureka experience, if accurately described by Lepore, is so bloodless and abstract that I can barely relate to it. I am left with the uncomfortable impression that the long-lost Internet of the ‘80s and 90s is Snowden’s “Rosebud” and that the greatest security breach in NSA’s history traces back to one man’s obsessive nostalgia about a childhood toy.
Orson Wells would be impressed. Me, not so much.
Nor does it help that much of the initial press coverage Snowden received was forgiving to the point of idolatry.
There were few clues in this early reporting that Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, had long ago imposed filtration rules on the NSA—officially tagged “minimization procedures”—that limited use or dissemination outside the NSA of data relating to the privacy of American citizens that had been inadvertently sucked up in bulk surveillance programs. This fact (and I grant you the details get wonky and mysterious) takes some of the steam out of Snowden’s protestation about a hacked Constitution. But most journalists who scored the initial beats on his story skipped over the filtration stuff altogether or fixated on the exceptions to these rules rather than on the rather salient fact that there were rules, however problematic.
Talk about half-truths.
Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes, a sober legal analyst if there ever was one, remarked in 2013 that these regulations seemed “reasonable” under the circumstances. Good point. Any way you slice the facts, and however elusive total privacy protections, the filtration set-up attempts to establish a balance between the dictates of national security and the very legitimate need to preserve our 4th Amendment rights.
Having often used NSA reporting in Vietnam to save lives, sometimes including my own, I can see the virtue of such a balance, though my views on this whole issue are colored by my sense that anyone who jumps on the Internet or uses any cell phone app might as well stand naked in front of a plate glass window. Only a fool would have any expectation of privacy.
But that’s another story.
What all of this means is that Snowden has been so selectively curated by the press that it is difficult to know how far to credit what we think we know about him and his motives.
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