When you give many interviews in different countries and say essentially the same thing over and over, as I do, media outlets often attempt to re-package what you've said to make their interview seem new and newsworthy, even when it isn't. Such is the case with this Reuters article today, that purports to summarize an interview I gave to the daily newspaper La Nacion of Argentina.
Like everything in the matter of these NSA leaks, this interview is being wildly distorted to attract attention away from the revelations themselves. It's particularly being seized on to attack Edward Snowden and, secondarily, me, for supposedly "blackmailing" and "threatening" the US government. That is just absurd.
That Snowden has created some sort of "dead man's switch" – whereby documents get released in the event that he is killed by the US government – was previously reported weeks ago, and Snowden himself has strongly implied much the same thing. That doesn't mean he thinks the US government is attempting to kill him – he doesn't – just that he's taken precautions against all eventualities, including that one (just incidentally, the notion that a government that has spent the last decade invading, bombing, torturing, rendering, kidnapping, imprisoning without charges, droning, partnering with the worst dictators and murderers, and targeting its own citizens for assassination would be above such conduct is charmingly quaint).
I made three points in this La Nacion interview, all of which are true and none of which has anything remotely to do with threats:
1) The oft-repeated claim that Snowden's intent is to harm the US is completely negated by the reality that he has all sorts of documents that could quickly and seriously harm the US if disclosed, yet he has published none of those. When he gave us the documents he provided, he repeatedly insisted that we exercise rigorous journalistic judgment in deciding which documents should be published in the public interest and which ones should be concealed on the ground that the harm of publication outweighs the public value. If his intent were to harm the US, he could have sold all the documents he had for a great deal of money, or indiscriminately published them, or passed them to a foreign adversary. He did none of that.
He carefully vetted every document he gave us, and then on top of that, asked that we only publish those which ought to be disclosed and would not cause gratuitous harm: the same analytical judgment that all media outlets and whistleblowers make all the time. The overwhelming majority of his disclosures were to blow the whistle on US government deceit and radical, hidden domestic surveillance.
My point in this interview was clear, one I've repeated over and over: had he wanted to harm the US government, he easily could have, but hasn't, as evidenced by the fact that – as I said – he has all sorts of documents that could inflict serious harm to the US government's programs. That demonstrates how irrational is the claim that his intent is to harm the US. His intent is to shine a light on these programs so they can be democratically debated. That's why none of the disclosures we've published can be remotely described as harming US national security: all they've harmed are the reputation and credibility of US officials who did these things and then lied about them.
2) The US government has acted with wild irrationality. The current criticism of Snowden is that he's in Russia. But the reason he's in Russia isn't that he chose to be there. It's because the US blocked him from leaving: first by revoking his passport (with no due process or trial), then by pressuring its allies to deny airspace rights to any plane they thought might be carrying him to asylum (even one carrying the democratically elected president of a sovereign state), then by bullying small countries out of letting him land for re-fueling.
Given the extraordinary amount of documents he has and their sensitivity, I pointed out in the interview that it is incredibly foolish for the US government to force him to remain in Russia. From the perspective of the US government and the purported concerns about him being in Russia, that makes zero sense given the documents he has.
3) I was asked whether I thought the US government would take physical action against him if he tried to go to Latin America or even force his plane down. That's when I said that doing so would be completely counter-productive given that – as has been reported before – such an attack could easily result in far more disclosures than allowing us as journalists to vet and responsibly report them, as we've doing. As a result of the documents he has, I said in the interview, the US government should be praying for his safety, not threatening or harming it.
That has nothing to do with me: I don't have access to those "insurance" documents and have no role in whatever dead man switch he's arranged. I'm reporting what documents he says he has and what precautions he says he has taken to protect himself from what he perceives to be the threat to his well-being. That's not a threat. Those are facts. I'm sorry if some people find them to be unpleasant. But they're still facts.
Before Snowden's identity was revealed as the whistleblower here, I wrote:
"Ever since the Nixon administration broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychoanalyst's office, the tactic of the US government has been to attack and demonize whistleblowers as a means of distracting attention from their own exposed wrongdoing and destroying the credibility of the messenger so that everyone tunes out the message. That attempt will undoubtedly be made here."
That's what all of this is. And it's all it is: an ongoing effort to distract attention away from the substance of the revelations. (This morning, MSNBC show host Melissa Harris-Parry blamed Snowden for the fact that there is so much media attention on him and so little on the NSA revelations: as though she doesn't have a twice-weekly TV show where she's free to focus as much as she wants on the NSA revelations she claims to find so important).
Compare the attention paid to Snowden's asylum drama and alleged personality traits to the attention paid to the disclosures about mass, indiscriminate NSA spying. Or compare the media calls that Snowden (and others who worked to expose mass NSA surveillance) be treated like a criminal to the virtually non-existent calls that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper be treated like a criminal for lying to Congress.
This "threat" fiction is just today's concoction to focus on anything but the revelations about US government lying to Congress and constitutionally and legally dubious NSA spying. Yesterday, it was something else, and tomorrow it will be something else again. As I said in an interview with Falguni Sheth published today by Salon, this only happens in the US: everywhere else, the media attention and political focus is on NSA surveillance, while US media figures are singularly obsessed with focusing on everything but that.
There are all sorts of ways that Snowden could have chosen to make these documents be public. He chose the most responsible way possible: coming to media outlets and journalists he trusted and asking that they be reported on responsibly. The effort to depict him as some sort of malicious traitor is completely negated by the facts. That was the point of the interview. If you're looking for people who have actually harmed the US with criminal behavior, look here and here and here – not to those who took risks to blow the whistle on all of that. As always, none of this will detain us even for a moment in continuing to report on the many NSA stories that remain.
"Q: Beyond the revelations about the spying system performance in general, what extra information has Snowden?
"A: Snowden has enough information to cause more damage to the US government in a minute alone than anyone else has ever had in the history of the United States. But that's not his goal. [His] objective is to expose software that people around the world use without knowing what they are exposing themselves without consciously agreeing to surrender their rights to privacy. [He] has a huge number of documents that would be very harmful to the US government if they were made public."
And exactly as I said, the answer about the dead man's switch came in response to my being asked: "Are you afraid that someone will try to kill him?" That's when I explained that I thought it was so unlikely because his claimed dead man's switch meant that it would produce more harm than good from the perspective of the US government. The only people who would claim any of this was a "threat" or "blackmail" are people with serious problems of reading comprehension or honesty, or both.
For those who say that they wish there was more attention paid to the substance of the NSA stories than Snowden: here is the list of the NSA revelations we've published over the last month. Feel free to focus on them any time.